Higher mortality rate among native infants called a tragedy
Report finds rate 4 times higher than non-native population
The infant mortality rate for native babies in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand is up to four times that of non-native newborns, says a groundbreaking new study.
New comparisons released Monday also show elevated rates of sudden infant death, injury, suicide and accidental death among aboriginal kids in all four countries.
Dr. Janet Smylie, a researcher who works through St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto, says the international replication of startling native health gaps among such diverse populations suggests social deprivation — not genetics — is to blame.
"Approximately one-third of aboriginal children come from low-income households" where nutritious food is often in short supply, she said.
"Poor water quality and substandard, overcrowded housing also contribute to health problems."
Lack of access to health care and a glaring lack of aboriginal-specific record-keeping exacerbate the problem, Smylie said.
"Until now, there has been no comprehensive data source on indigenous child health in Canada," she said of the 127-page study, called Indigenous Children's Health Report: Health Assessment in Action.
Health Canada covered the $100,000 research costs.
The study finds that the obesity rate for First Nations children living on reserve is 36 per cent compared to eight per cent for Canadian children overall.
Ear infections, respiratory illness and dental problems were disproportionately noted in all four countries studied.
What's just as disturbing is how much more serious native health problems might appear if accurate data existed, Smylie said.
Aboriginal-specific birth, health care and surveillance details for non-status First Nation residents, Métis and off-reserve native children is nearly "non-existent."
"Every infant who dies … I believe is a tragedy we should follow up on," Smylie said.
She also spoke of stereotypical and at times racist treatment received by native people.
"I saw a lot of challenges when I was delivering babies here in Ottawa. Young aboriginal moms who had perfectly good networks of family support — sometimes they were being referred to have the social worker see them even though their family was strong.
"I remember [another] … patient who had called into the hospital in a little bit of a panic. She had some anxiety and a strong accent. The triage nurse called me and said: 'There's something wrong with your patient. I think she's retarded.'
"Those are stories that are just a little too frequent."
Legacy of abuse
Good data both for policy makers and in native communities is key to preventing needless illness and death, Smylie stressed.
She compared the study to a report card that reveals the tip of an iceberg of underlying social causes: colonization, loss of land and access to natural resources, poverty and lack of care.
She also cited the legacy of abuse in native residential schools as a major health impact.
Resulting human suffering, much of it unreported, is akin to plane crashes that don't make headlines, Smylie said.
"I think the plane crashes are happening all the time and we don't even know."
She hopes the study will serve as a wake-up call and evidence that federal programs for native kids such as Aboriginal Head Start need stable, long-term funding, she said.
In Canada, the infant mortality rate for children on reserves is twice that of non-natives, the study finds. Inuit babies are four times more likely to die.
There is no specific infant mortality data for the Métis, those of mixed aboriginal and European ancestry something that Smylie, who is herself Métis, hopes to change.
"For me, that's not acceptable in a country like Canada."