Two Northern Ontario School of Medicine researchers were recently feasted by Lac Seul for their research into a vaccine for a bacterial pathogen that affects First Nations people.
“Northwestern Ontario has the second largest number of cases of Haemophilus influenzae type A, after the Canadian Arctic,” said Marina Ulanova, an associate professor at NOSM. “In addition, we have discovered that Haemophilus influenzae type A occurs at a much higher rate among First Nations peoples compared to the rest of the population in northwestern Ontario.”
Ulanova and Eli Nix, a postdoctoral fellow at NOSM, were feasted during NOSM’s ninth annual Northern Health Research Conference, held June 6-7 in Sioux Lookout. The two researchers presented their research into the Haemophilus influenzae type A bacteria on the first day of the conference and were later feasted in the Lac Seul community of Frenchman’s Head.
“People were impressed that we have made so much progress in the short amount of time that we have been working on the project,” Nix said. “The other researchers were also impressed with our community engagement because it is challenging to do research with First Nations people.”
Nix said there have historically been many examples of unethical scientific research conducted on First Nations people.
“As a result many are hesitant to become involved in research today,” Nix said. “We have been working with communities, council members in health portfolios, tribal health authorities, and regional health centers to ensure that our research is inclusive and collaborative, with the goal of building long-term relationships. We’re very invested in making sure that our research is done in a culturally competent and appropriate way.”
Nix said the Haemophilus influenzae type A bacteria should not be confused with the influenza virus. The bacteria is capable of causing serious infections that can lead to permanent disability, brain damage and deafness.
“There are vaccines for influenza type A (the virus), but there isn’t a vaccine for Haemophilus influenzae type A (the bacteria),” Nix said. “Originally, before we knew about viruses, the scientist who discovered the bacteria isolated it from someone who had influenza, so they thought that the bacteria caused it, so they called the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae. But when they realized in the 1930s that there was such a thing as viruses, and they discovered the influenza virus, they never changed the name of the bacteria, so it just makes it very confusing.”
Nix and Ulanova have found that First Nations people have more potent antibodies than non-First Nations.
“Our working hypothesis now is that there is a higher circulation of the bacteria among First Nations,” Nix said. “This has the effect of boosting your immune system if you’re healthy, but may also result in higher rates of infection among people with weakened immune systems.”
While the two researchers have also been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States due to the high rates of Haemophilus influenzae type A in Alaska, they are now planning to expand their research into the other parts of the province to better understand why the Haemophilus influenzae type A infections are largely confined to the northwest.
“Our next big research question is: What is the epidemiology of this infection in other regions of northern Ontario,” Ulanova said. “We know that in Canada, the infection is much more prevalent in northern areas than in southern areas. We plan to extend our research to gain more specific data about how and why the bacteria are in higher circulation in the north.”
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