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The fight for access to life-saving medication for Inuit infants

Dr. Anna Banerji has finally won the fight to get Inuit infants priority for an RSV vaccine, but more action is needed
From left, David Iqaqrialu (grandfather of Nathan), Nathan Banerji-Kearney, Anna Banerji in Clyde River. Photo courtesy of Anna Banerji

Dr. Anna Banerji may be from Toronto, but the Order of Ontario recipient has what she describes as a “deep connection” to the North and Nunavut.

She has put 30 years of research into the study of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and how it affects Inuit babies.

“I have a long history of being in the Arctic, and I have close friends and my son’s extended family in the Arctic,” Banerji said.

It is why she started a petition on in 2019 that challenged decision-makers to grant equitable access to potentially life-saving RSV medication for Inuit babies, and other Indigenous babies from remote communities in Canada.

This month, the petition, entitled ‘Provide #FairMedicine to protect Inuit babies from RSV deaths,’ been declared a victory following the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s (NACI) decision to recognize the increased risk for RSV admissions among Indigenous infants.

Banerji says this development has “been a long time coming.”

Canadian Inuit babies have the highest rate of hospitalizations from RSV in the world, particularly in the Kitikmeot region. This could easily be prevented with a proven antibody against RSV. Before, the immunizing agent known as palivizumab had been administered to children across Canada who were deemed to be high-risk. Inuit infants, who had 10 times the numbers of admissions from RSV compared to other high-risk infants, were not included in this category. Now that there is a new and improved antibody called Beyfortus, which is "long-acting, therefore only one dose is required, and it’s a lot cheaper.”

Following the declared victory of the petition, which garnered more than 250,000 signatures, “NACI has recognized that Indigenous kids are at high risk for severe RSV, [so] that means that they should have priority for the new RSV antibodies... versus the rest of Canada... if there is a limited supply, the Indigenous kids in remote communities now should have priority, just like the premature kids or the cardiac kids" Banerji says. "That’s huge, because lumping all the Indigenous kids into the same basket as other Canadians, when other Canadians don’t have all the difficulties in transportation, needing to be medevaced out from these remote communities [to be treated in hospitals], they don’t have overcrowding, etc... so recognizing that these babies are higher risk for RSV, and higher priority is big. Huge. Finally.”

“What needs to happen next, is the funding bodies... really need to get enough funds to make sure that this is put into place, so that the babies that are eligible get access to it" she continues. "There’s no point in saying, ‘Now all these babies should get priority for this vaccine’ if [policy-makers] don’t have the funding and the human resources to put this into place.

Now that Inuit children have been designated a priority for the RSV vaccine, the crucial step is putting the infrastructure in place to make it happen, and "we can rise to the occasion if it’s a priority,” asserts Banerji. “And it really needs to be a priority for the government.”

“I did the research,” Banerji elaborates, “on and off for 30 years looking at this... what they need to do is get the systems get in place now, start working now to make sure that people know what to do before the season comes such as where do they get the vaccine, making sure there are nurses that are familiar with the new vaccine. We shouldn’t have all these babies being admitted to hospital with RSV anymore... we should really see a decline in the admissions for RSV.

“I’m happy to speak to anybody... the public health people, physicians, policy-makers, the government, anything to help move things along," Banerji continues. "We have the same goal: the priority for us is to help keep the babies safer. It’s taken 30 years of research, and five years of a petition, with a quarter million signatures to finally move things forward. At this point, let’s just try to work together to make this happen. It shouldn’t have taken this long for them, but I just glad now that they recognize the Inuit and First Nations babies as being high risk for severe RSV... To me, it’s really about reducing the admissions for RSV.” 

The victory of this petition is also personal to Banerji.

“This was launched a year after my son died,” said Banerji. “He was an Inuk from Clyde River... I think he would be pleased that finally it’s happened.”

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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