Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the vulnerability of indigenous peoples to the H1N1 virus (and other diseases)

In Canada, the latest issue surrounding the H1N1 virus surrounds a rather spectacularly insensitive gaffe made by the ministry of health under the current Conservative minority government, which shipped body bags along with medical supplies to at least one Manitoba First Nations reserve. At the same time that this happened, however, significant outbreaks on First Nations reserves in British Columbia's Vancouver Island, while reports from around the world suggest that Indigenous Australians are also vulnerable and, indeed, some fear that indigenous peoples around the world could suffer a disproportionately high toll.

(Here, for brevity's sake, I'll go with Wikipedia's definition of indigenous peoples, as ethnocultural groups established on a particular territory before more recent states and migrants arrive. Here, I suppose that this definition can apply broadly for groups in areas as far separated as Siberia and Patagonia, the Northern Territory and Yukon.)

What's going on? It's a well-known fact that epidemic disease played a huge role in determining the future populations of indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as in also in Australia and the Maori, among other indigenous peoples. Epidemic diseases like measles and smallpox which entered populations entirely without immune defenses on account of their isolation from the Eurasian disease pool could easily inflict apocalyptic death tolls. To be considered, too, is the possibility that at least in the Americas the founder effect--the limited number of forebears--in the settlers of the Western Hemisphere may have produced a population lacking certain immune system-related genetic traits which could have at least hindered the spread of the disease. Finally, there's the effect of poverty: in Canada, at least, someone of First Nations background is much more likely to live in relative deprivation than a member of the general population, with lower incomes, higher unemployment, worse housing, and greater problems in accessing social capital. It might not be too far out of line to say that, for First Nations and other indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, the flu in the 21st century might play something like the same iconic role as cholera in the 19th century or tuberculosis in the 20th, as a marker of the problems of urbanization and poverty.

I've a post stored up somewhere on my laptop describing how indigenous peoples are generally in an earlier stage of the demographic transition than the other citizens of the countries where they live, with substantially higher birth rates and cohort fertility. Sadly, it's also true that mortality among indigenous peoples is likewise quite a bit higher. Dispatching the body bags was rather insensitive, but some sort of in-depth planning to deal with this and other epidemic diseases here already and yet to come.


CCz said...

Is this an explanation for the high number of deaths during the outbreak in Mexico last year?
Can this be related to etnic background?

Randy McDonald said...

That's a possibility, I suppose, but I lack the expertise to answer it. Interesting question, though.