Alarming health reports should help West Coast focus on issues

A recently published report from Island Health doesn’t seem to paint a pretty picture for the West Coast – but there’s an even bigger problem. The problem is that sweeping generalities don’t help anybody, and this document is actually crunching numbers from a far-flung region that includes the Alberni Valley and outlying First Nations communities as well as the West Coast towns of Ucluelet and Tofino.

The stats throw together a dizzying jumble of data, including the National Household Survey, the B.C. Statistics Agency, B.C. Vital Statistics and the province’s Ministry of Health. It cites an eye-aching array of social, economic and health numbers in the hopes of providing a general depiction of area residents’ well being.

The overall impression after a read-through is the prevalence of unhealthy conditions on the Island’s West Coast; entire communities struggling to progress while hindered by excessive drinking and lower than average incomes.

Island Health’s regional profile suffers from generalitis.

It covers at least 10 communities over 6,904 square kilometers, stretching from the west side of Cathedral Grove to the Island’s coast, including Bamfield, Ucluelet, Tofino and the many First Nations that surround those communities.

We dare not ignore frightening numbers in this report that leap off the page. Overall, the region’s infant mortality rate is 8.2 deaths for every 1,000 births – double the provincial average.

Twenty-one of 1,000 children born on the West Coast are put into protective care by the time they reach 18, a disturbing statistic triple the rate seen across the province.

Thirty-two percent of children in the area are cared for by single parents – six per cent higher than the provincial rate – while 10.4 per cent of births in the region are to teenage mothers. The number of teenage births across the province is a much smaller three per cent.

Among adults, the West Coast has the highest rate of coronary heart disease and medically-treatable conditions on the Island.

On average, an adult here drinks 177 litres of alcohol annually, compared to the 104 litres consumed by the typical B.C. resident. Rates of high blood pressure and depression are higher than across the province, and the region has an average life expectancy of 78 – four years lower than the B.C. standard.

The Island Health report goes beyond medical data to indicate the economic disadvantages of the entire area’s residents.

Labour force participation in the Alberni region is 60.5 per cent, five points lower than the number of adults in B.C. 25 and older who are working. While the median family income of $57,090 is almost $9,000 less than

the provincial earnings, the typical lone female parent makes just $33,077 – more than $10,000 below the average for single mothers across the province.

While the report doesn’t provide pull-out numbers for ethnicity, it does note that in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, 16.9 per cent of individuals are either First Nations, Métis or Inuit, triple the portion of aboriginal people in B.C.’s population.

Other studies show a disproportionate number of aboriginal people suffer from health and economic issues in comparison to non-aboriginal Canadians.

According to Health Canada, First Nations heart disease rates are 1.5 times higher than other nonaboriginal Canadians, while Type 2 diabetes is at least

three times more prevalent. This suggests the First Nations figures included in the larger West Coast picture should be specifically addressed as a more focused health issue.

The piece comes at a tough time; media over the last month has not necessarily been kind to Port Alberni, including a report from MoneySense Magazine ranking Port Alberni dead last among the 201 best cities to live in Canada. While Island Health’s recent numbers could be seen as a blow to the area’s confidence, this disturbing data can also serve as a call to action to address health concerns in a focused manner.

For all of us, it’s important to collate the data so we can know what to work on.