SASKATOON, SK — The World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference on Viral Hepatitis organizing committee is hosting a virtual conference on global Indigenous responses to COVID-19 in the context of viral hepatitis.
The committee had planned on holding its third global congress in Saskatoon in September 2020. That event has been postponed to June 2022 because of COVID-19, so in the meantime the committee has planned an online mini-conference for November 24.
Indigenous healthcare experts, Elders and people with lived experience, along with some allies, will speak about Indigenous responses to COVID-19, especially in communities that are also affected by viral hepatitis.
Dr. Alexandra King, Cameco Chair of Indigenous Health and Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan and chair of the committee, said that while the in-person gathering has been postponed, it is still important to meet and learn from Indigenous healthcare experts and leaders. Indigenous sovereignty has meant communities are taking control over their health and over their safety, resulting in some really innovative responses to this pandemic.
“COVID-19 demanded considerable attention from community leaders and our health system. Indigenous communities were highly proactive and achieved huge success in protecting our communities during the first COVID wave,” King said. “Our leadership has continued with their innovative responses, drawing on Indigenous and Western ways of knowing and doing. We cannot be complacent in the second and subsequent waves.”
While Indigenous communities are successfully responding to COVID-19, they are still faced with other healthcare challenges. Many of these communities have much higher than average rates of viral hepatitis and less than adequate healthcare, often a result of the lasting and ongoing impacts of colonialism, inadequate access to immunization and treatment, and inadequacies in the provision of culturally-safe and responsive healthcare to Indigenous people.
King added that the intersection of viral hepatitis, which is a family of both infectious and oncogenic viruses, and COVID-19 is especially relevant Indigenous people. In Canada, self-identified Indigenous people are seven times more likely to contract Hepatitis C than non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia are approximately four times more likely to contract Hepatitis B, and Māori and Pasifika have twice the national rates of Hepatitis B. Indigenous people in Asia, Central and South America, and Africa also tend to have higher rates of viral hepatitis. Indigenous communities need to prevent both diseases, providing well-delivered hepatitis vaccination programs, while limiting the spread of COVID-19.
“We need to continue to aggressively test and treat viral hepatitis, even in the context of COVID-19,” King said. “Robust harm reduction services, which reach people wherever they are, are necessary to prevent hepatitis C and B. COVID-19 means we have to up our game, and this mini-conference will be a great opportunity for us to share our successes and learn from each other.”
The mini-conference will feature a keynote presentation from Jessica Leston and David Stephens from the keynote from the Project ECHO team, which offers world-renowned hepatitis services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Project ECHO has now expanded their program to address COVID-19. Also, there are several other ECHO programs that have been fashioned after Project ECHO here in Canada and elsewhere around the world.
A global panel of experts will discuss how Indigenous communities around the world are coping with COVID-19 while continuing to address viral hepatitis. There will also be Indigenous people with lived experience of hepatitis sharing their own experiences of living through the pandemic and welcome messages from an Elder and from Saskatchewan’s Ministry Responsible for First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs, which is providing financial support for the event. Participants from around the world will be joining the mini-conference.
The online mini-conference is free and open to anyone interested. More information and the registration can be found at https://wipcvh2021.org/virtual-mini-conference/.