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Inuit hit hard by H1N1 swine flu

H1N1 influenza outbreaks in Canada’s predominantly Inuit territories of Nunavut and northern Manitoba could trigger the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic.

WHO briefed reporters June 9 that reports to the agency of infections in Inuit communities in Canada showed “disproportionate numbers of serious cases occurring,” said WHO senior official Keiji Fukuda.

He said the agency is seeing “a larger number than expected of young Inuit people developing serious illnesses requiring hospitalization,” but said any speculation as to causes such as genetic, environmental or due to underlying diseases is premature.

The agencies concern followed reports that the number of H1N1 cases doubled June 9 in the aboriginal community of Nunavut, from 25 to 53. In northeast Manitoba more than half of the 26 persons hospitalized on respirators are aboriginals.

Nunavut’s chief medical officer, Dr. Isaac Sobol, downplayed WHO’s report, telling reporters June 9 he didn’t see a “disproportionate number of serious cases,” in Inuit communities.

But the next day, CBC News Canada reported that 43 new cases were confirmed in Nunavut, bringing the total to 96. Manitoba reported four new aboriginal cases among 16 new cases.

The Nunavut Health Department reported in a June 10 release that 75 percent of the cases were in the territory’s westerly Kitikmeot region, and 25 percent were in the Kivalliq region in central Nunavut. It said several communities in those regions have experienced “significant outbreaks” of swine flu.

In comparison, the Northwest Territories has confirmed two cases of swine flu, while the Yukon has one.

Dr. Anna Banerji of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, who has studied respiratory illness in Inuit children, told CBC News that those children may be more at risk of infection due to poor nutrition and living in overcrowded housing.

The Inuit were among the groups that suffered the highest mortality levels in 1918’s Spanish flu pandemic.

Fukuda said WHO will be paying close attention on country- and community-specific impacts worldwide in the months to come, as the severity of the virus could vary widely from place to place.