SCIENCE & RESEARCH

Indigenous matters

Ensuring First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities are major stakeholders is essential to health research

BY JOEL SCHLESINGER
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2016

There really is no way to sugar-coat it. Children in Indigenous communities in Manitoba suffer from poorer health than children elsewhere in the province.

As a result, it is absolutely critical to ensure that any research into diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and asthma include children living in Indigenous communities, says Tannis Erickson, Executive Director of the Developmental Origins of Chronic Diseases in Children Network (DEVOTION).

DEVOTION recently secured funding to help make that happen.

The Lawson Foundation, a national organization supporting wellness initiatives for children, has agreed to provide $250,000 annually for five years to help make Indigenous-centric investigation a major piece of DEVOTION's broader efforts to research childhood diseases. 

This is largely in recognition that some of the most prevalent and pernicious childhood illnesses - such as Type 2 diabetes - affect Indigenous children more than other populations, says Erickson.

"What we know, for example, is that especially with respect to children with Type 2 diabetes, the majority of cases are in Indigenous communities," she says. "You're 12 times more likely to develop it as a youth if you live in an Indigenous community."

For researchers like Jon McGavock, a DEVOTION team leader, bringing Indigenous Manitobans on board as research, clinical, community and policy-making partners isn't just an afterthought. It's essential because his research directly involves these communities. 

"For me, for example, the biggest thing I'm interested in is reducing inequities that exist in our Indigenous population: inequities in diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure," says McGavock.

The problems affecting youth in these communities often start early in life - maybe even while still in the womb, he says. "More and more studies are coming out stating the reason these inequities exist is because of factors that have happened early in a child's life."

Research can make a difference, says McGavock. For example, studies have found that breastfeeding or better daycare can have huge impacts on reducing health inequities.

While these are straightforward solutions, more work needs to be done to ensure this knowledge can be used effectively in programs at the community level.

"The more I work with youth with diabetes from Indigenous communities and childhood obesity, the more I see that there is possibly a big impact we can have by designing early life interventions that would try to bridge the gap so Indigenous youth are not affected by these chronic diseases," McGavock says.

But putting knowledge into practice can be a challenge, particularly in remote areas of the province.

Lawson's funding will be invaluable in this respect because the money is earmarked specifically to support researchers and initiatives in Indigenous communities. While the exact details still have yet to be determined, Erickson says the funds "are going to help develop programs based on the findings from research under the DEVOTION umbrella" for the benefit of Indigenous communities.

For the time being, DEVOTION's main areas of interest will be Type 2 diabetes as well as asthma and other allergies. But over the next five years its focus will grow, thanks to ongoing funding from Lawson, Erickson adds.

"It is the extra link from the research down to the community hopefully in the form of developing effective programs that make a difference in the lives of our province's Indigenous people."

Back to "A matter of devotion"

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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