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Researcher back to study aboriginal health

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, November 22, 2010

Beaufort Delta residents could soon have more of a say when it comes to new health programs or research they'd like to see offered in the region.

NNSL photo/graphic

University of Alberta dean of medicine and dentistry, Philip Baker, and Gita Sharma, a University of Alberta professor of aboriginal health, visited Inuvik and Aklavik earlier this month to scope out future health-related research opportunities in the region, since Healthy Foods North shut down. - Katie May/NNSL photo

Nutritionist Sangita 'Gita' Sharma, the former lead researcher for Healthy Foods North, is now a professor of aboriginal health at the University of Alberta and was recently appointed the school's endowed chair in aboriginal health.

Earlier this month, she returned to the North - visiting Inuvik and Aklavik - to talk to health professionals and community members with the goal of scoping out potential for future disease prevention-related programs in the region and possible research partnerships between the communities and University of Alberta.

"It's not really what we want to work on, it's what the communities want us to work on," said Sharma while she was in Inuvik Nov. 12 with the university's dean of medicine and dentistry, Philip Baker.

The pair met with aboriginal groups and local doctors, nurses and health administrators, delivering copies of Sharma's assessment of Inuvialuit diet as published in the Oct. 2010 British Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, based on her work with Healthy Foods North, which operated in Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok until the program shut down in September due to lack of funds.

At the time, Sharma was living and working in the U.S. and most of the money that supported Healthy Foods North came from American partners, she said, and she couldn't take that money with her when she moved to Canada.

Sharma said she hopes interested groups will come together and look for community funding to start up a similar nutrition program.

"That would be great," she said. But for now she's got her sights set on new projects that will bring her back to the region about once a month. She plans to return in January and drive to visit Tuk. As of yet, the University of Alberta has not announced any specific new research projects focusing on health in the Arctic.

"Healthy Foods North tried to address the access and availability of food and tried to address nutritional status, but now we're looking at other things that we could explore," she said. "Now we're looking at, what are the needs of the community? Are people interested in, for example, reducing their risk of colorectal cancer and do we need to do some projects looking at what those risk factors are?"

She said she loves working in the region because of a palpable sense of community spirit.

"The people are just amazingly friendly and it's a great community to work with because everything's close by and we can really work as a community together, and I think that was part of the success of Healthy Foods North," she said.

"That's what's lovely about working in the North - we can actually get everybody sitting round the same table and do a program that can have a really large impact."

Sangita, who holds a PhD in nutritional epidemiology from the University of Manchester, has worked to improve nutritional levels of people in Cameroon, Brazil, Indonesia, Jamaica and the United Kingdom - among other countries around the world. She said she decided to continue her work in the North because she sees real potential in residents to focus more on traditional foods and adopt healthier lifestyles to help stop the continued climb of diabetes, heart disease and obesity rates.

"With the population here, those diseases haven't occurred yet to the same extent as some other communities," she said. "For example, diabetes actually isn't anywhere near as prevalent as it is in some other (aboriginal) communities further south. So what we want to do is try and stop that transition from happening.

If people are going to the store to buy food and if they are having less ability to hunt and to fish, that they're making the right food choices," Sharma added.

"For me, as a nutritionist, it's really interesting to guide people in their food choices."

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