by Hunter Calder
Cancer Researchers have found Māori in New Zealand have a higher chance of getting preventable cancerous diseases such as lung or cervical cancer than their non-indigenous peers.
And they are also suffering higher cancer rates than indigenous people in other countries, where rates are similar to or lower than to those in non indigenous populations.
Māori women were among the largest group who could experience breast cancer and lung cancer was most common among Maori men, with incidence 155 per cent higher than non-indigenous men.
The study included indigenous and non indigenous people who had been diagnosed with cancer from 2002-2006 in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. It compared and investigated the diagnoses between each county.
**Read reaction to the research from New Zealand health experts on Scimex.org**
The researchers looked into the differences of life expectancy and general health among minority and non minority cultural groups.
The data was published in Lancet Oncology. It was completed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and included international researchers and two kiwi researchers from Massey University’s Centre for Public Health research.
Alcohol and Tobacco abuse was recorded as a “major risk factor” for cancer and study contributor Dr Freddie Bray said lung cancer was common among the indigenous people included in the study.
An expert in Māori health from the University of Otago, Bridget Robson, said the findings could be associated with social disparities in New Zealand.
She said breast screening targets in New Zealand had been met in some regions but the challenge was to ensure all regions participated in cancer screening programmes.
“Cancer control is not high quality unless all benefit. We know it can be done.”
However the researched data acknowledged past colonisation had affected the health of indigenous people through political, social, environmental, and economic changes.
“Income, employment and housing, and access to care are known key determinants of health. The substantially higher proportions of indigenous people living in deprivation compared with their non-indigenous counterparts has obvious implications for policies surrounding cancer control in indigenous people in all four countries studied,” the authors noted.
A lecturer in Māori health and well-being at the University of Canterbury, Annabel Ahuriri Driscoll, said the research was consistent with earlier reports that showed health disparities between cultural groups in New Zealand were “well-established.”
Lagging other indigenous populations
But she said it was surprising to find that other countries indigenous populations “known to be similarly disadvantaged”, were not as high as New Zealand.
The authors conceded that the data they gathered was limited because of the timeframe and availability of information. They also pointed out health care and social structure differences “hindered assessment of the scale and profile of cancers in indigenous populations within the four countries”.
Health indicators that were used in the research included mortality rates, cause of death (including cancer), immunization, breast and cervical screening coverage, smoking, obesity and diabetes prevalence, and access to treatment services such as coronary angioplasty, dialysis and organ transplants.
Waikato indigenous public health physician, Dr Nina Scott and Chair of the National Māori Cancer Leadership Group, Hei Ahuru Mowai, both said a greater focus on indigenous health would be a positive step towards health equity. They said more national data was needed “on inequities in cancer incidence, survival and morality between indigenous and non-indigenous groups”, to help improve cancer rates for Māori people.
The researchers hope their findings will be the beginning of further investigations into cancerous research with an aim to reduce the number of indigenous people that are diagnosed with cancer.
The study authors conclude; “Governments and researchers need to work in partnership with indigenous communities to improve cancer surveillance in all jurisdictions, and facilitate access to cancer data where required. This action imperative to alleviate the high and avoidable burden of cancer in indigenous people worldwide.”
While the data suggest Māori fair worse in health than their indigenous peers in other, similarly advanced countries, experts also suggest some of that could be down to more fulsome data collection in New Zealand.
Said Associate Professor Diana Sarfati, Director, Cancer Control and Screening Research Group, University of Otago, Wellington: “New Zealand has some of the best data to monitor inequalities resulting in accurate estimations of cancer incidence for Māori while data in other countries are substantially less accurate meaning that the incidence of cancer among indigenous people in the other countries is likely to have been underestimated, possibly substantially”.
Hunter Calder is a first year journalism student at the New Zealand Broadcasting School based in Christchurch