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St. Joseph's Health Centre Toronto

St. Joseph’s pediatrician honoured for research and advocacy for Inuit children

Dr. Anna Banerji is a world traveler.

She has visited more than 50 countries and became an infectious disease specialist so she could maximize her impact as a health care provider in helping underserved communities around the world.

But no matter where her travels take her, it’s a region much closer to home that holds a special place in her heart.

Dr. Banerji has been researching Indigenous health for 25 years, travelling to the Canadian Arctic more than 40 times to study respiratory infections in Inuit children.

In recognition of this work, Dr. Banerji was recently awarded the Peter Henderson Bryce Award by the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society. The award is given to health professionals advocating for the health and well-being of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and youth.

“I went to the Arctic for the first time in 1995 to help with a research study and I was so captivated that I kept going back,” says Dr. Banerji, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre.

Dr. Banerji discovered Inuit babies are more frequently infected by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) than the wider Canadian population. She says she became committed to meeting the health needs of a marginalized and vulnerable population.

“I felt there were major areas of health inequality and I felt in a position to speak up and bring change,” she says.

Dr. Banerji’s research found that lung infections for Inuit newborns were 40-60 times the rates in southern parts of the country and she did the only case control study ever done in the Arctic looking at the risk factors for why babies were admitted to hospital.

RSV is a major cause of respiratory illness in young children and infects the lungs and airways causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis. In premature babies, infants, and kids with diseases that affect the lungs, heart, or immune system, it can lead to other more serious illnesses and sometimes can be lethal.

For the last decade, Dr. Banerji says she has been using her research to advocate for Inuit newborns to be vaccinated with palivizumab, an antibody that has been shown to protect against RSV. Through cost analysis studies, her research has found it would be cheaper to give palivizumab to every Inuit baby in remote communities rather than pay for medevac and extended ICU stays in hospitals.

“When these sick babies have to be flown to regional and tertiary hospitals for treatment often they are separated from their families because mothers can’t leave the rest of the family and these children can have long hospital stays due to complications,” says Dr. Banerji.

“I believe we can do more and better for them.”

Recently, Dr. Banerji was asked to discuss her work at a reunion of alumni of University of Toronto’s 1989 Faculty of Medicine. Her talk inspired a classmate to start a petition encouraging the government of Nunavut to support administering palivizumab during RSV season to term Inuit infants under six months of age.

It has collected over 50,000 signatures to date, including from the Ontario Medical Association, Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Institute of Health Research, and the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health.

In addition to her research work in the Arctic, Dr. Banerji works in pediatrics and infectious disease at St. Joseph’s and other Toronto-area hospitals, as well screening most of the newly arrived resettled refugee children coming to Toronto. She founded and chairs two conferences at the University of Toronto – the Indigenous Health Conference and North American Refugee Health Conference.

“In my work I make a point of trying to understand the barriers that patients may face, whether they are children in the Inuit, refugees, members of racialized communities, etc., and I think understanding the barriers helps anyone become a more sensitive care provider,” she says.

“What drives me is trying to seek equity and fairness and I want to use my research to advocate for vulnerable populations to improve their health and well-being.”

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