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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

West Nordic Council Health Conference

Ilulissat, Greenland, 11 June 2003

West Nordic Council Health Conference

Statement on behalf of the Chair of Senior Arctic Officials

Allow me, on behalf of the Chair of Senior Arctic Officials, Ambassador Pálsson, to thank the West-Nordic Council for the invitation to attend this meeting and introduce the work of the Arctic Council on health issues.

Many of the activities of the West-Nordic Council are closely related to Arctic Council activities and the basic natural and economic conditions are quite similar throughout the overlapping geographic area of both Councils. The Arctic Council enjoys good collaboration with the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region and the Nordic Council. We certainly welcome also this opportunity to exhange views with the West-Nordic Council.

As many of you know, the Arctic Council is primarily a regional forum for sustainable development, mandated to address all three of its main pillars; the environmental, social and economic. The scientific and environmental work of the Arctic Council is carried out in several expert Working Groups focusing on such issues as monitoring, assessing and preventing pollution in the Arctic, climate change, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, in addition to emergency preparedness and prevention. At the same time, the Arctic Council is giving greater focus and direction to its work on the social and economic pillars of sustainable development.

The Arctic Council is a distinctive form of co-operation between governments and indigenous peoples in the Arctic. Several organizations representing indigenous peoples, so-called Permanent Participants, including the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, contribute to the Council's work, enabling it to take full account also of traditional knowledge. Non-Arctic states, inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations, are involved in the Arctic Council as observers. These include, for example, the Northern Forum, which has given great attention to health issues in the Arctic.

Monitoring and assessing environmental pollution has been a cornerstone of the Arctic Council's work. Our approach is to provide the best available scientific evidence to policy makers and to promote dialogue among scientists, planners, residents and decision-makers within the Arctic region.

It is commonly acknowledged that the Arctic is a vast and relatively clean area where people enjoy close relations with nature. The Arctic region is predominantly a marine area and parts of the Arctic oceans include some of the most important seas for commercial fisheries in the world. Fish and other marine resources are important components of many peoples' diet, contributing to their good health.

Health is a complex issue, having to do with consumption patterns, housing, lifestyles, diet and health care, among other things. It is widely recognized that human health is a critical element of sustainable development. In the Arctic, one can hardly talk about health without taking into account traditional lifestyles, based on peoples' knowledge of the natural environment. Certain health problems tend to occur when this balance with nature is disturbed. Economic development is frequently accompanied by changes in a number of factors that can impact human health, sometimes in a negative manner.

In this context, I would like draw attention to the Greenlandic report, "An Arctic Window", issued in connection with the development of the European Union's Northern Dimension Action Plan. This report underlines the impact of human activities both outside and within the Arctic on the eco-systems and its possible consequences for public health.

The Arctic Council's Monitoring and Assessment Programme, AMAP, has issued two major reports of high quality on circumpolar Arctic pollution. Among other things, these reports deal with human health, in particular, the impact of the environment, pollution and diet on human health.

With your permission, I would like to highlight some of the results of the assessment, relating to human health in the Arctic:

The main conclusion of these assessments is that in comparison with most other areas of the world, the Arctic remains a clean environment. However, for some pollutants, combinations of different factors give rise to concern in certain ecosystems and for some human populations. These circumstances sometimes occur on a local scale, but in some cases may be regional or circumpolar in extent.

The AMAP human health assessment considered health risks associated with exposure to contaminants in relation to other lifestyle factors determining health. The studies reveal that in the Arctic, the rapid pace of cultural change is having a large impact on human health. On the positive side, infectious diseases and accidents have become less common. But there are also less positive aspects as lifestyles become more Western; the rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have increased. Smoking is common and so is the consumption of alcohol in many Arctic communities. Suicide is also a significant cause of death, particularly among young men.

Even though food habits in the Arctic are changing, local resources still play an important role in providing nutrients, some of which protect against disease. Some traditional foods, however, contain high levels of contaminants. The fat of marine mammals and birds, for example, contains many persistent organic pollutants, while their meat and that of some freshwater fish can contain high levels of mercury, which accumulate in the food web.

It has been established that the diet is the main form of intake for contaminants and AMAP has provided information about the levels of contaminants in people, in particular in pregnant women. The main conclusion is that the current exposure of some Arctic populations to the existing mixture of contaminants is inducing subtle adverse effects.

This, of course, raises questions as to the safety of the consumption of traditional food. From the point of view of AMAP, the continued consumption of traditional food is encouraged, as its benefits are considered to outweigh the risk.

The Arctic Council is increasingly concerned about the living conditions of Arctic residents. One of the Arctic Council Working Groups, dealing with Sustainable Development (SDWG), currently carries out several projects that relate to human health.

To begin with, let me refer to the Arctic Human Development Report launched last fall and expected to become the first comprehensive assessment of human conditions in the circumpolar region. Particular emphasis will be placed on health issues and a special chapter devoted to that subject. This chapter will focus on the socio-economic and cultural aspects of human health by addressing, among other things, the causes of suicide and family violence. The Arctic Human Development Report will be issued by the Ministerial meeting in the autumn of 2004.

A Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic, the so-called SLICA project, is also being carried out under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Among other things, the project documents the similar health concerns of the Inuit and Saami populations in Inuvialuit, Nunavut, Nunavik, Labrador, Greenland, Alaska, Chukotka, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Kola Peninsula.

There is also the International Circumpolar Surveillance (ICS), a project focusing on prevention and control of emerging infectious disease in the Arctic. Its purpose is mainly to establish an integrated surveillance system for an infectious disease network of hospital and public health laboratories throughout the Arctic region.
In addition, the Sustainable Development Working Group is engaged in a project concerning the future of children and youth in the Arctic. The overall goal is to improve the health and well-being of children and youth with the establishment of an action plan to reduce health problems.

Lastly, the SDWG Working Group operates the Arctic Telemedicine Project. The purpose of this project is to gather information about the use of modern communications technologies to deliver health care services to remote locations in the Arctic.

The Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is organizing an international conference on Information and Communication Technology with a special emphasis on telemedicine. The conference will be held in the Akureyri, Iceland, on 20-21 October 2003.

The ongoing Arctic Council project on climate change also has a health aspect, as the project will examine possible future impacts of climate change on, among other things, human health, and recommend possible responses and adaptations.

In the long run, international conventions or protocols are important tools for reducing the contaminant load in Arctic traditional food and thus eventually in people. For that reason, the Arctic Council is paying a great deal of attention to co-operation with international organisations. One example is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) where the Arctic Council had a role in having the problem of mercury pollution placed on the agenda. Another example is the contribution of the Arctic Council to the new European Union's Northern Dimension Action Plan, where the EU was encouraged, among other things, to work with the Council in an effort to combat long-range transboundary pollution.

The Arctic is increasingly being looked to as a bellwether for what may come about in other areas of the world. This may also be true for human health. Through programs of the kind I have described, the Arctic Council hopes, in the years ahead, to do its part in confronting and dealing with some of the major health concerns that affect the people of the region. In that effort, we would certainly welcome the support of the West-Nordic Council.

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