In Respiratory Illness in Saskatoon Infants: The Impact of Housing and Neighbourhood Characteristics, Judith Wright and Nazeem Muhajarine examined the relationship between several possible factors and the incidence of infant respiratory illness (particularly bacterial pneumonia and asthma). The authors evaluated the significance of being small for gestational age (SGA), premature birth, and neighbourhood and housing characteristics as possible predictors of respiratory problems.
In the 1980s, respiratory illness was the leading cause of hospitalization for children, and research has emphasized the significance of neighbourhood and environment in these health problems. Other research has explored the influence of low birth weight, SGA, and premature birth as factors that might compromise a young child’s immune system, thereby magnifying adverse neighbourhood or housing effects. Using Saskatoon data, the authors compiled data for children’s hospital and ambulatory visits for respiratory problems as well as variables such as household income, family size, education, and housing type and age. Some of the revelations from this data analysis included:
- Saskatoon’s West side had a disproportionate concentration of SGA infants for the city, but premature birth was more significant in terms of risk factors leading to hospitalization.
- Higher hospitalization rates for all respiratory illness were found almost exclusively on the West side.
- Employment percentage, number of homes constructed before 1971, population under the age of 10, and neighbourhood income were all significant predictors of hospitalization rates. Older houses and higher incomes in a neighbourhood decreased the number of hospitalizations.
- High rates of low education and rental tenure were tied to greater incidences of bacterial pneumonia
- Asthma rates increased where there were greater numbers of homes built after 1985. (The significance of housing construction dates may be related to newer homes being more airtight, which limits ventilation and allows for greater concentration of airway irritants. Houses built before the energy crisis of the 1970s tend to have greater air-exchange rates. Homes built after 1985 may, however, act as a proxy for some other neighbourhood characteristic ) Unlike other respiratory illnesses, asthma was fairly evenly distributed throughout the city.
What these findings suggest is that respiratory illnesses (asthma aside) have strong socio-economic connections, where issues of poverty, overcrowding, and poor heating all adversely affect health. Not surprising, then, neighbourhoods on Saskatoon’s eastern perimeter—a site of exclusively new housing—show higher rates of asthma.
“Targeting certain neighbourhoods for interventions,” the authors wrote, “such as adult education programs, special skills training, or employment opportunities may not only address health disparities but may also improve the quality of life for everyone in the community by ‘releasing’ resources that might otherwise be spent on health care” (p.18). The results of this study confirm the value of neighbourhood demographics in terms of health planning.