OTTAWA (Reuters) - The rate of tuberculosis among Canada's 55,000 Arctic Inuit people is catastrophically high and much more must be done to combat the lung disease, activists said on Wednesday.
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) organization, citing official data, said the tuberculosis rate for Inuit in 2008 was 185 times higher than for Canadian-born non-aboriginals.
Among the reasons are very poor housing conditions and the high cost of living in the Arctic, an enormous region where providing health care is costly and complicated.
The Inuit are part of Canada's 1.2 million native people, or First Nations, many of whom live in poverty. The tuberculosis rate among First Nations as a whole is 31 times that of the Canadian-born non-aboriginal population.
"It is unconscionable that these conditions exist in a country that boasts of having one of the lowest tuberculosis rates in the world," said Gail Turner, chair of the ITK's national health committee.
Canada's public health agency says 88 cases of tuberculosis were reported among the Inuit in 2008. A total of 1,600 people -- most of them foreign born -- were diagnosed with the disease in 2008 in Canada, which has a population of 33 million.
The squalid living conditions of the First Nations have long been an embarrassment for Canada, a member of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations.
Responsibility for health care is split between the federal government, which provides significant funding, and the 10 provinces and three territories, which administer care.
"Tuberculosis will never be eliminated until housing is improved, food security is improved and access to health care for Inuit is closer to what other Canadians take for granted," Turner told a news conference.
Canada, which will host a summit of G8 leaders in June, says it wants to improve the health of women and children in the Third World.
"I think they (the G8) will be interested to see that we've got Third World conditions here in Canada. All they'd need to do is fly to one of the remote communities," said Angus Toulouse of the Assembly of First Nations.
A spokeswoman for federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government is committed to reducing tuberculosis among First Nations people and the Inuit.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway