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Collaboration Explores Prevention of Infectious Diseases in Aboriginal Communities

Posted on February 6, 2012

Researchers from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine are working to create vaccines that could prevent the spread of two infectious diseases among Aboriginal populations across country, and particularly in Northern Ontario. Working alongside the National Research Council (NRC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), researchers hope to develop a vaccine for the potentially fatal Haemophilus Influenzae Type A and Helicobacter pylori infection. A description and the work being conducted on these two diseases follow:

Haemophilus Influenzae Type A

Haemophilus influenzae often lives in its host undetected and then spreads to those who are elderly and immunocompromised. Across Canada it has been found most prevalent in Aboriginal populations in Northern Ontario. Northern Ontario Aboriginal communities have the highest incidence of this particular infection outside of the North American Arctic. For every hundred thousand people, seven are infected with this serious disease.

This is a very rare disease that has only presented itself in few cases across North America, but in particular has been found in Aboriginal populations such as Navajo and White Mountain Apache in the U.S.A.
“For comparison, before the introduction of a pediatric vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) [the close relative to Haemophilus influenzae type A], the incidence rate of invasive Hib disease in Ontario was 1.42/100,000 population/year,” said Dr. Marina Ulanova, Immunologist and Faculty member at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

Dr. Ulanova has found that young Aboriginal children as well as adults with severe underlying diseases, such as chronic lung, kidney or heart disease are at the highest risk of acquiring this infection in Northern Ontario. This infection can be very dangerous and present itself as a blood infection known as sepsis, and meningitis, which is a brain infection that can have severe consequences for further child development. “The development of a vaccine would mean that Aboriginal populations across the North could be better protected against the Haemophilus influenzae bacteria,” explained Dr. Ulanova.

Helicobacter Pylori

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection is prevalent, infecting more than 50% of the population world-wide. While many individuals remain without symptoms, approximately 10-15% will develop peptic ulcers and 3% will develop cancer of the stomach. Additionally, H. pylori infections have been associated with colorectal, liver, lung, pancreatic and laryngeal cancers.

First Nations members are particularly susceptible to peptic ulcer disease and have a significantly higher prevalence of H. pylori infection in their communities. One study conducted in northern Manitoba, reported a 95% infection rate of H. pylori in First Nations communities. This bacterial infection is of particular concern for Northern Ontario since there is currently no epidemiological data on H. pylori infections in the area.

“We plan to establish a collection of H. pylori isolates from clinical cases across Northern Ontario so we can characterize the strains that are relevant in our area. Analyzing the specific characteristics of these strains will not only allow us to develop more successful treatment plans, but will also help to identify potential vaccine targets for the development of a safe and effective vaccine against H. pylori,” explained Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, Vice President of Research for Health Sciences North, and Faculty member at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.