Researchers from the University of Alberta examined more than 425,000 births in Alberta from 2000 to 2009. Author Richard Oster, from the university's faculty of medicine and dentistry, said the risk of stillborn births was 70 per cent higher for First Nations women compared with non-aboriginal mothers.
"Although the prevalence of stillbirth has remained stable in Alberta over 10 years, it remains persistently higher in First Nations pregnancies than in the general population," said the study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada.
The rate of stillborn births has remained steady in the last decade even as they've been falling in other high-income countries, he said.
"It's good news that they're not increasing — we don't want more stillbirths — but, of course, we'd like to see them going down," Oster said.
The findings echo studies from Quebec and Manitoba, which found infant mortality and stillborn births are higher among First Nations and Inuit people compared with the rest of the Canadian population.
A Statistics Canada study, released in February, found Inuit and First Nations in Quebec are at much greater risk of stillborn births and infant deaths compared with the rest of the province. The study found infant mortality was greater on reserves in southern Quebec even compared with non-aboriginal communities that were isolated and socio-economically disadvantaged.
Pre-existing diabetes appears to be partly to blame in Alberta, Oster said.
"Moms that had either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes during their pregnancy had a much higher chance of having a stillbirth. If we can better manage diabetes during pregnancy in First Nations women, we could lessen the risk of stillbirths."
First Nations women also tend to attend prenatal checkups less frequently, he said. This seems to stem from a historical mistrust of doctors, as well as from other factors that include lack of transportation and child care.
First Nations women could perhaps be encouraged to seek prenatal care if the relationship were less paternalistic and more patient-centred, Oster suggested.
"It's a level playing field where the patient has some control as well. We find that works better, not just for aboriginal people, but for a lot of people. It reduces that fear."
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