'It's authorized by the Inuit…'

Floating health survey readies for launch


With only four weeks to go before they drop anchor at their first port of call, organizers of the Arctic's biggest health survey ever are nearly ready to go.

"The pieces are falling together," said Grace Egeland of McGill University's Centre for Indigenous People's Nutrition, the co-ordinator of the study.

The project, called "Qanuippitali," will attempt to survey 12 per cent of Canada's Inuit population between now and the end of 2008.

Its purpose is to generate information that will help health workers determine what diseases are prevalent among Inuit and guide future health care planning. The information will also help researchers and scientists figure out where to direct their work in the future.

To do that, they'll convert the Coast Guard research vessel Amundsen into a floating health lab and sail it into nearly every Inuit community in Nunavut, Nunatsiavut and the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories.

This summer, researchers will survey people living in all Baffin communities and every Kivalliq community, with the exception of Baker Lake. Because Baker Lake cannot be reached by most ocean-going vessels, a land-based crew will survey the community in 2008.

Its concept is similar to the Qanuippitaa health survey that Nunavik's regional health board and Université Laval conducted in 2004 among the 15 communities of Nunavik, also from aboard the Amundsen.

And as was done in Nunavik, organizers are distributing information ahead of the ship's arrival to help prepare people.

That includes telling people about what to expect and reassuring them about how the information will be used and kept safe.

To that end, organizers have hired about 40 bilingual Inuit to work within the communities and on the ship. Some will help people get ready for the survey, while others will help conduct the survey.

Each adult participant will get to the Amundsen by ferry or helicopter, then spend two to three hours on board. Surveyors will ask questions about conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as questions about diet, stress, and living conditions such as overcrowded housing.

Each participant will also get a physical examination that will include measurements of height, weight, body fat, blood pressure and pulse. Researchers will also take blood samples to obtain information about diabetes, infectious diseases, nutrition and environmental contaminants.

Egeland says researchers will take great care to ensure that this information will be kept confidential. Data will be entered into a computer – but the computer will not be connected to the internet, which ensures the data cannot be downloaded by hackers.

She also said that samples and survey results will not the bear the name of any participant, and will be identified only by a code number.

If researchers do discover people who need immediate medical care for previously undiagnosed problems, they will be able to notify them by using a special list that links the code to the person's name.

But that list will be kept in a locked safe at all times within the Centre for Indigenous People's Nutrition, which is located at McGill's MacDonald College on the West Island of Montreal, Egeland said.

Another aspect of the public information campaign is to assure people, especially older Inuit, that this project is not like the old summer voyages of the hospital ship C.D. Howe. In the 1950's, many Inuit boarded that ship for what they thought was an hour or so of medical care, but ended up being transported to southern tuberculosis hospitals where they languished for years.

"This is different. It's authorized by the Inuit … It's a different era," Egeland said.

She said organizers held meetings in every region of Nunavut earlier this year, where regional and community leaders gave strong support to the project.

And the project's backers include political and social organizations that represent all of Nunavut: the Nunavut Association of Municipalities, the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Embrace Life, and the three regional Inuit associations. Representatives of these organizations sit on a co-ordinating committee that provides guidance to Egeland and her team.

Researchers will also survey 250 children aged three to five, but not on board the ship. That will include tests for vitamin D, iron, vision and other things.

It's likely the most visible project to obtain federal funding for the International Polar Year. This past March, Ottawa announced they will give the project $6.4 million for research costs and $4.2 million for ship time.

The Amundsen's first port-of-call is Sanikiluaq, with an expected arrival date of Aug. 6. From there they will sail along the Kivalliq coast, then head over to the Baffin region by the end of August.

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