Crees have one of the highest rates of diabetes recorded anywhere in the world, according to figures from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services.
In some communities, 19 to 24 per cent of adult Crees have diabetes, according to the latest health board figures.
Only two other populations anywhere in the world have reported higher rates, the Micronesians of Nauru and the Pima Natives of the United States, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association.
These two groups reported rates of over 40 per cent. Four per cent of Canadians are diagnosed with diabetes.
Cree women also have the second-highest reported rate of gestational diabetes in the world, according to the health board.
Thirteen per cent of Cree women were found to have the illness. The highest rate is among the Zuni Natives of New Mexico, who reported a 14.5-per-cent rate in a 1987-90 survey.
Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes women get when they’re pregnant. It usually disappears after the pregnancy is over, but it leaves the woman at a higher risk of getting diabetes later in her life.
“We have to call it an epidemic,” said Dr Robert Harris of the Chisasibi Hospital. “It is a real call for us to improve our services for diabetes.”
The health board is engaged in a campaign to educate Crees about diabetes and train its staff to handle the illness better.
The health board has compiled the first annual Cree Diabetes Registry, which states that at least 607 Crees have diabetes, or 8 per cent of
the Cree population aged 15 and up. That’s double the Canadian average.
It’s also up from the 435 Crees found to have diabetes in a 1993 survey, and the 234 Crees found to have the illness in 1989.
The diabetes registry is the most complete survey of the illness in the Cree com munities, but already it looks like the numbers are out of date.
“I’ve already found people not on the list,” said Mavis Verronneau, diabetes educator with the health board.
In Eastmain, Verronneau says, 41 people now have diabetes (the registry lists only 28), while in Waswanipi there are 129 (the registry lists 96). That gives Waswanipi one of the highest rates of any community, at 19 per cent of those aged 15 and up.
The hardest hit communities are those in the south. In sheer numbers, Mistissini is by far the hardest hit with 186 cases, or 11.4 per cent of people aged 15 and over.
Verronneau said nurses in Mistissini report the real number is actually 400 cases, but that has yet to be confirmed. If that number is accurate, it means almost 25 per cent of Mistissini adults have diabetes, the third highest recorded in the world.
O.J., Eastmain, Nemaska and Waskaga-nish are all in the 8 to 9.6 per cent range, while Chisasibi, Wemindji and Whapma-goostui are between 4.9 and 5.1 per cent.
Two in three Crees with diabetes are women and 56 per cent are aged 50 and up, according to the registry.
The highest rates are reported by older women. Almost 39 per cent of Cree women aged70 to 74 have diabetes.
Diabetes is A Community Issue
Diabetes has become such a problem in the Cree world because of the sudden changes in people’s lifestyles.
For many Crees, the healthy food and lifestyle of the bush have given way to a diet of processed food and a non-active way of life.
And that has led to diabetes, which is triggered by lack of exercise and a poor diet of too much sugar and fat
Many other First Nations people have experienced the same worrisome phenomenon. The worst situation is in those communities close to non-Native cities.
Diabetes can lead to damage to eyes, kidneys, nerves and arteries. It is a leading cause of amputations, heart problems, blindness and impotence.
The best way to avoid and treat diabetes is to change your diet and exercise. Medicines can help control the illness, but health workers say too many people with diabetes use medicine as a crutch. Many people are able to get the illness under control by exercising and eating less fat, less sugar and more fibre.
People with diabetes also need the support of their families and communities. When they’re trying to change their diet, it helps if their family is supportive and if there is diabetes-friendly food available at community feasts.
When cooking with oil, consider using vegetable oil or olive oil, instead of lard. Or better yet, use goose drippings (akuhchimuun/bimii), which is “very good fat,” according to Dr Robert Harris of the Cree Health Board. “It’s even better than vegetable oil,” Harris said.
The health board once used to advise people not to use goose drippings, but recently learned that they are actually very good for you. “This is a new discovery for us. We’re learning too,” Harris said.
Harris said the health board and communities have to do a better job. “It’s such an epidemic that we have to do better.”
He would like it made easier for people with diabetes to exercise. Walking clubs areone idea. Also, fitness centres should be made more open to Elders, who are some timesshy about going there.