'We should not solely blame this on patterns of smoking.'

In Sanikiluaq, even non-smokers get sick lungs


A Winnipeg physician who treated patients in Sanikiluaq for 30 years wants to know why a third of the community's adults, including many non-smokers, suffer from some form of lung disease,

Dr. Bruce Martin first visited Sanikiluaq in 1978 as a young doctor. Since then, he's seen many residents die from lung disease.

Sanikiluaq has a population of 815, and about 100 out of 350 adults are known to have some symptoms of lung disease. Many of them have not and have never been smokers, he said.

That's why Martin began to suspect that smoking is not the only contributing factor to lung disease in the community and that there may other contributing factors linked to Sanikiluaq's unique environment.

"It's not until you immerse yourself in a community that you begin to listen to more than just the symptoms of the next patient you're seeing," Martin said. "We should not, until we have better evidence, solely blame this on patterns of smoking. It's so easy for health care providers, many of whom are not particularly smoke-friendly, to say ‘it's your smoking,' when, because we've never done comprehensive studies, we may be overlooking other reversible factors."

Researchers have already pinpointed overcrowding and second-hand smoke as possible factors behind the high rates of lung disease among Inuit. But other activities, such as carving, may also feed lung disease.

Carvers generally work with soapstone, a soft material that is easily ground into dust. This dust can deeply penetrate the lungs and irritate lung tissues. Dust has already been linked to chronic lung disease among stone carvers in Brazil.

To see whether soapstone carving, hunting and other activities contribute to the development of lung disease, Martin, who is the director of the J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit at the University of Manitoba, will lead a four-year research project in Sanikiluaq.

It will be the first scientific study on work-related lung disease among Inuit involved in traditional activities like carving or hunting.

The project, due to start later this year, received a $300,000 grant from the Ontario-based pharmaceutical company Nycomed Canada Inc., which manufactures asthma medicine.

The timing for the project is good, Martin said, because its start-up will follow the release of a new national lung health strategy this autumn.

To date, chronic lung disease has received relatively little attention as a chronic disease compared with heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, he said.

The symptoms of lung disease include asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. These can lead to other health complications, which can range from miscarriages and pneumonia to cervical and lung cancer.

For the project, researchers first plan to study the medical history of adults in Sanikiluaq who already suffer from lung disease to find out how common lung disease is in various age and gender groups.

To explore the connection between various activities and lung disease, researchers will also evaluate the risks to carvers from their exposure to dust while carving.

And researchers will also look at biological samples from animals and birds commonly hunted in Sanikiluaq to see whether there's a link between hunting certain species and lung disease.

Martin wants to use the information to create a community-based care model to better diagnose and manage lung disease in Sanikiluaq.

In turn, this may help develop strategies to provide better health care for other communities, he said, through respiratory care workshops throughout the Kivalliq, the region through which Sanikiluaq receives its health care services.

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