Baffins moms-to-be don’t get enough food

Pot and tobacco smoking common among pregnant women


YELLOWKNIFE — Most pregnant women in the Baffin region of Nunavut are malnourished and smoke too much, says a Government of Nunavut research study presented at the recent International Congress of Circumpolar Health in Yellowknife.

“Our mothers are malnourished,” Janet Brewster, the GN’s manager of health protection, said during the conference.

“If I can eat one time in the day, that is okay,” says a woman quoted in the study, entitled “Anaana,” which means “mother” in Inuktitut.

The study looked at more than 100 pregnant women in the Baffin region.

Researchers found that most of them smoke tobacco and marijuana, habits that are linked to life-long health problems in women and their children.

“The health status of pregnant Inuit women in Nunavut is not as good as it could be,” Brewster said.

But for many pregnant women, eating well is the least of their problems because they are just trying to get through the day, Brewster said in her presentation.

A high percentage of the participants in the “Anaana” study were aged 20 to 24. Many worked or gained some income from social assistance.

A quarter had graduated from high school.

Interviews and analyses of their blood samples reveal:

  • More than six in 10 smoke and, of these, more than half are heavy smokers, puffing nine to 36 cigarettes daily;
  • More than six in 10 smoke marijuana and, of these, one in five smokes pot daily;
  • Many have high levels of the heavy metal cadmium in their blood, which comes from smoking and can lead to kidney and lung problems;
  • Many continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy;
  • Eight in 10 lack vitamin D, a deficiency that can stunt growth and is also linked to cancer, heart disease, and auto-immune conditions like diabetes and influenza;
  • Nearly half don’t eat enough, some skipping meals and eating only once a day; and
  • Most say they would eat more country food if it were available.

On the average, pregnant women now smoke about two and a half cigarettes per day more than they did 10 years ago, researchers found.

This prompted Dr. André Corriveau, the chief medical officer of Alberta, to question whether things were getting worse instead of better.

“What are we doing wrong?” asked Corriveau, who is the former chief medical officer for the Northwest Territories and a past executive director of the Inuulitsivik hospital in Nunavik.

Brewster said the GN should adopt a more “Inuk approach.”

If you’re a Nunavut women who is pregnant, Brewster advises eating a wide variety of country foods and store-bought foods, and asking your family and elders for support.

If you know a pregnant woman, she says you should help this future mother make healthy lifestyle choices, eat well and stay active.

You should bring her country food, and, above all, try to keep her from smoking and away from smokers.

“Do not offer cigarettes or other forms of tobacco to pregnant women. Do not smoke near pregnant women. Encourage them to quit smoking,” Brewster said.

Many medical researchers at the circumpolar health meeting singled out smoking as a major — and preventable— health hazard for children.

Studies show smoking means smokers’ babies are born with a low birth weight.

A low birth weight is connected later in life to hyperactivity, lung problems, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

As for drinking during pregnancy — an issue some presenters at the conference seemed reluctant to tackle openly, it leads to fetal alcohol syndrome or brain damage to children.

Dr. Marjo-Riitta Järvelin, a pediatrician from Finland, has conducted many research studies, which followed thousands of women and children over time.

Järvelin believes the unborn babies of Finns, and possibly other circumpolar peoples, may be more predisposed than other groups to suffer severe damage if their mothers smoke and drink.

Järvelin said Finland brought down its rates of smoking and drinking among pregnant women and improved general health conditions by hiring more public health workers to look after women and children.

“You need people who are really tough and protect children of the next generation,” she told the Nunatsiaq News.

Home visits by public health workers have been linked to better health in many studies, said others at the circumpolar health meeting.

An early presentation at the health congress, based on work done during the Qanuippitali health survey, found that half of Nunavut children aged three to five don’t get enough to eat.

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