A Winnipeg medical researcher is trying to figure out why First Nations people seem to be more prone to developing rheumatoid arthritis compared to the rest of the Canadian population.

Dr. Hani El-Gabalawy and his team have flown to St. Theresa Point in northern Manitoba to study the family members of those who have rheumatoid arthritis, in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of how the inflammatory joint disease develops.

El-Gabalawy says rheumatoid arthritis affects two to three per cent of Canada's aboriginal population, which is at least double the rate in the rest of the country.

Experts consider that difference to be very significant, which is why the research is underway to determine possible causes.

"We understand now that it's not just genetics and it's not just environment. It's actually the interaction between genetics and the environment," El-Gabalawy told CBC News.

He said First Nations individuals have a gene that puts them at a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, and factors like tobacco smoke and gum disease may cause the gene to trigger the onset of the disease.

"The disease clusters in families," he added.

Remote community

St. Theresa Point is a remote First Nation community located about 460 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.


The nursing station in St. Theresa Point, Man. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

Agnes Harper, who is taking part in the research, says she developed rheumatoid arthritis in her early 30s and has been taking medication for the past 35 years.

"It's very painful. I felt it in my hands the worst," she said. "The first time it was on my shoulder, then it went to my knees."

Living in St. Theresa Point, which is accessible only by air, can make it challenging for people with rheumatoid arthritis to get proper care.

By studying the family members of First Nation members with rheumatoid arthritis, El-Gabalawy said he hopes to prevent future cases from happening.

"We feel this will make a difference in terms of intervening in a very timely manner to address the earliest stage of the disease, but we hope … to actually get a handle on prevention even before the disease starts," he said.