A high rate of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections among Inuit babies in Nunavut could be curbed if health officials give a costly but proven vaccine to them, according to a new study.

The report by Dr. Anna Banerji of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, published Thursday on the website of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, suggests that Nunavut health authorities rethink how RSV cases are handled in the territory.

Risk factors

Dr. Anna Banerji's study found that infants of mothers who smoked during pregnancy were four times more likely to be admitted to hospital for lower respiratory tract infections.

It also found Inuit infants were four times more likely to have lower respiratory tract infections than non-Inuit infants or those of mixed descent, although the study did not determine if that's caused by genetic factors or socio-economic factors.

Those who lived in overcrowded homes were 2½ times more likely to be admitted for infections. As well, infants who live in rural communities without a hospital had their risk increase 2.7 times.

Based on research conducted in 2002 on Baffin Island, Banerji's study found almost one-third of infants are hospitalized with lower respiratory tract infections, which are most often caused by RSV.

The virus is most often associated with premature births in southern Canada, but Banerji said that's not the case in Nunavut.

"When you look in the Arctic, most of the kids are term and they're healthy kids," Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, told CBC News.

Banerji said many of the cases can be prevented with palivizumab, a vaccine that is proven to reduce RSV infections.

Because the vaccine costs about $7,000 per child, it's usually given only to high-risk infants, with risk determined mostly by birth weight.

That criteria does not reflect the risks faced by infants in the Arctic, Banerji said.

It would be cheaper, she said, to give palivizumab to every six-month-old Baffin Island baby born outside Iqaluit, rather than pay for medevac and hospital costs if those children get sick.

"Even though this vaccine is very expensive, it still saves a lot of money by giving this vaccine to all the kids in the rural areas less than six months of age," she said.

Officials with Nunavut's Department of Health and Social Services told CBC News they need time to look at the research before they can comment.

Late last year, the department declined to be involved in Banerji's continued study on RSV in the circumpolar world. At the time, health officials said the department was doing its own research into the virus.