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High Aboriginal Diabetes Rate Sparks Innovative Solutions

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Canada’s aboriginal peoples, in addition to registering the country’s highest rates of tuberculosis, have other disproportionately high health problems too. First Nations have higher-than-mainstream diabetes rates, and the Inuit may catch up.

All this plus a unique possible solution for managing diabetes came to light around May 6, Aboriginal Diabetes Awareness Day.

“One in five First Nation citizens is diabetic, a statistic well above the national average,” said AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo in a statement. “National Aboriginal Diabetes Awareness Day is one of many opportunities to raise awareness of the health gap between First Nations and other Canadians. The health and safety of our people is an urgent priority as we advance our plans to work with the newly formed federal government to address and close this gap. Diabetes prevention and care, food security and consistent and adequate access to healthy foods are just some of the key factors in these efforts.”

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation have partnered with the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC) and the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi-aventis Canada to establish a community greenhouse next to the SOAHAC medical clinic in Munsee, Ontario, to improve access to healthy foods.

“The greenhouse will become an intergenerational community center that will facilitate diabetes education, the promotion of healthy eating and lifestyle changes to encourage First Nations to better self-manage their diabetes,” said Sanofi-aventis Canada in a press release.

Given that most First Nations’ diabetes cases are of Type 2, the kind controllable by diet, SOAHAC and the University of Western Ontario recommended establishing community gardens to increase First Nations’ access to healthy food, said Sanofi-aventis Canada President and CEO Hugh O’Neill in the company’s statement.

Canada’s 2010 federal budget allotted $110 million over two years to help combat aboriginal diabetes, according to the government’s Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative website.

“The greenhouse will serve three First Nations communities (Chippewas, Oneida and Munsee), providing healthy food and medicinal herbs,” says Joe Miskokomon, Chief of the Chippewas of the Thames, in the Sanofi-aventis statement. “It will unite both young and old in the community to learn about nutrition and healthy living. Given the epidemic of diabetes among our First Nations today, a project like this is critical to better diabetes management and the future of our community.”

Inuit communities may soon be taking note. A recent study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association (CMAJ) screened Inuit for diabetes, correlated the findings with the obesity rates and found that these northern people are not somehow protected from the metabolic ravages of obesity as had been thought for years.

“Our results suggest that Inuit are not protected from the metabolic consequences of obesity, and that their rate of diabetes prevalence is now comparable to that observed in the general Canadian population,” wrote study author Grace M. Egeland.

On top of that a global public health expert announced on May 12 that climate change has made diabetes a “ticking time bomb” in the Arctic, according to the Nunatsiaq News. A high presence of pollutants in the meat and blubber of marine mammals such as pilot whales, beluga and narwhal is linked to diabetes development, said Philippe Grandjean of the University of Southern Denmark and the Harvard University School of Public Health, speaking in Copenhagen at a global summit on climate change.