Smoking, poor ventilation are risk factors
Inuit infants may suffer life-long lung damage
Many Inuit children in Nunavut will cough up mucus and endure life-threatening problems for the rest of their lives because of early childhood lung infections that leave their lungs scarred and permanently damaged, say doctors at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Lung scarring among some young Inuit is so severe that doctors say they're as badly damaged as children who suffer from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the mucus lining of the lungs and can lead to death by early adulthood.
Specialists from the Ottawa children's hospital were involved in the latest study on lung infections among Inuit children that was published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. That study found that reduced ventilation and crowding may contribute to the high number of lung infections among young Inuit children.
The study, called "Indoor air quality and the risk of lower respiratory tract infections in young Canadian Inuit children," suggests that a combination of more and better housing, improved ventilation and less indoor smoking could cut down on child lung infections.
More than one in two children under five in the study had a reported history of lung infection.
But the study's authors admit they couldn't establish any direct link between overcrowding, poor ventilation, smoking and childhood lung infection. That's because there was no control group of children who live in well-ventilated, non-smoking and uncrowded homes to use for comparison.
As well, much of the test group's health information couldn't be checked because the interviewers didn't collect health card numbers.
The next step is to see whether the installation of better ventilation systems in households can improve health in Pond Inlet, Igloolik, Clyde River and Pangnirtung.
But Nunavummiut don't have to wait for the results of more studies and housing improvements to act, advises Dr. Thomas Kovesi, a lung specialist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the lead researcher in the study.
He says people should smoke outside, rather than puff indoors or inside furnace rooms.
"My gut feeling is that if people were not smoking or smoking out-of-doors, the rate of lung infection would be lower than what we're seeing currently, but it would probably still be higher than what we would consider acceptable," he said.
Kovesi still believes the role of ventilation in preventing the spread of lung infections may prove to be significant.
That's because smoking, poverty and overcrowding exist in other places, such as the African nation of Gambia, where there are lower rates of hospitalization due to lung infections, he told Nunatsiaq News. Better ventilation may be the difference, Kovesi said.
Previous studies from Greenland, Alaska and Baffin show babies born after a full-term of pregnancy and who are breast-fed are at less risk of requiring hospital treatment for lung infections.
Past studies also show that overcrowding and exposure to second-hand smoke increase the risk of being sent to hospital.
Health officials also say that frequent hand-washing will help curb the spread of viral lung infections.
For the most recent study, researchers looked at 25 social housing units each in Cape Dorset, Igloolik, Clyde River and Pond Inlet.
On average, each household contained six people, three of whom were children. Nearly all households had at least one smoker who smoked either inside or in the furnace room.
Air testing found high levels of carbon dioxide inside the dwellings and higher numbers of occupants in households where children under five had been sick with lung infections. Researchers say the combination of too many people and a poorly-ventilated space may increase the chances for infection to thrive and spread.
The study prompted some Inuit leaders to call for political action to improve housing in the Arctic.
"What's needed to relieve some of the poor housing conditions includes an Inuit-specific housing policy, secure, adequate and long-term housing funding, and the development of housing policies and programs that consider the priority needs of Arctic communities," said Martha Greig, president of the national Inuit women's organization, Pauktuutit.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon wants Jim Prentice, the federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs to establish "a multi-party partnership to thoroughly examine the health, social and economic problems plaguing our Inuit communities and people."