Study: Smoking sickens Baffin babies
MONTREAL — Nunavut smokers are making their babies sick.
That’s the conclusion of a recent study showing that infants in the Baffin region suffer from one of the highest rates of lung infection in the world.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a Vancouver pediatrician and infectious disease specialist who conducted the study, said the Baffin’s lung-infection rates rival those of the world’s poorest countries.
The problem, she said, is caused largely by parents who smoke around their babies — potentially dooming them to a life of recurrent lung disease.
Banerji’s study, published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at babies younger than six months old who were treated for lung infections at Iqaluit’s Baffin Regional hospital from October 1997 to June 1998.
Smoking was a common factor affecting every infant. All the babies’ mothers had smoked during pregnancy, and all had at least two smokers in their house.
Around 60 per cent of Nunavummiut smoke — a rate far higher than in the nation at large.
And Banerji suggested that exposure to smoke is “magnified in the Arctic by increased time spent indoors in relatively airtight housing.”
The study said overcrowded homes and low rates of breast-feeding may also contribute to sickness among Nunavut babies.
More than 40 per cent of the infants in the study had been adopted, and most of those had not been breast-fed.
“The adopted infants stayed in hospital for 12.6 days on average, compared with 5.7 days for non-adopted infants. Breast-fed infants stayed in hospital for a mean of 6.5 days versus 10.4 in non-breast-fed infants,” Banerji said.
Poverty, lack of education, and the young age of mothers are other factors that make babies prone to lung disease, she said.
But according to Banerji, all these causes don’t completely explain the high infection rates suffered in the Baffin. She said it’s possible that genetic factors or an unidentified bacteria may also be at work.
“It’s out of proportion to what you should find,” she said in an interview from her Vancouver home Tuesday. “In Africa you can understand why children get so sick. In Iqaluit, you can’t.”
Banerji said she wants to return North to conduct further, more comprehensive studies of the same subject — “With the goal of reducing the impact of respiratory disease in the Inuit population.”
Nunavut’s Public Health Department hopes to make a dent in high lung-infection rates by vaccinating all children younger than five against influenza. All children older than two will also be vaccinated against pneumonia.
“We hope these will assist in lowering the rates of childhood infection,” said Nunavut’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ann Roberts.
Roberts said these vaccines will help, but not all children respond to them, nor are they a remedy for social causes of lung infections, such as smoking.
She said the findings revealed in Banerji’s study about the Baffin would hold true anywhere in Nunavut.