Saturday, March 03, 2007

Special Event: Multicultural Heath Fair Tackles Barriers

From an article in the Georgia Straight

Although people from other countries often come to Canada in search of a better life, their health can sometimes suffer. There's a phenomenon known as the “healthy immigrant effect”, in which newly arrived Canadians seem to be in better condition than the general population. However, over time, many see their physical and mental well-being deteriorate. Understanding the decline—and finding ways to avert it—is part of the reason the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of B.C. is hosting its third annual Promoting Healthy Living: A Multicultural Health Fair this Saturday (March 3).

AMSSA president Emese Szücs tells the Georgia Straight that the event came about as a result of feedback her organization was receiving from immigrants about their experiences with their new country's health-care system.

“There's a huge lack when it comes to their needs,” Szücs says in a phone interview. “There's a lack of awareness on behalf of the population we serve with regards to accessing the system. There are a number of barriers: language, and cultural competence in terms of health providers. If health providers are culturally unresponsive in the way they relate to patients, it will deter people from getting help. There are also religious factors.

“Furthermore, our income and status change quite dramatically [upon immigrating], and to try to establish yourself in a new culture, to learn how a new system works, takes time,” adds Szücs, who came to Vancouver from Romania almost 20 years ago. “It takes a lot of confidence to navigate the system on your own.”

Last year, AMSSA released a study called Promoting Healthy Living in BC's Multicultural Communities, which explored the problems that newcomers face when it comes to medical care. The report surveyed health-care providers, social workers, and community groups, as well as immigrants speaking 12 different languages and living in 16 communities throughout the province.

According to the study, the language barrier was the most common concern among recent immigrants. Those surveyed shared the perception that interpretation services were scant at hospitals and walk-in clinics. Take one participant's visit to the emergency department at Surrey Memorial Hospital. “Her level of English proficiency was limited, and she had to wait a long time until a family member could arrive on-site and help her to communicate with the health care provider,” the report states. “Apparently nobody told her that interpretation services have been available through a phone line in that emergency room since 2001.”

Financial strain is another problem. Medical Services Plan fees and the cost of services that aren't covered by MSP, such as vision and dental care, as well as the price of some medications, are perceived as prohibitive by many immigrants. In 2005, Statistics Canada reported that people who have been in Canada five years or less were more likely than other Canadians to have a low income or be under- or unemployed.

The list of barriers goes on: lack of transportation; limited home support for seniors; difficulty finding a family doctor who's taking new patients; long wait times for specialized health care, surgery, or in emergency rooms; and even racism.

With so many hindrances to accessing adequate care, newcomers say they often end up feeling frustrated or depressed—and new immigrants are already at high risk for developing mental illnesses, the AMSSA report says. Among the contributing factors are the loss of socioeconomic status, lack of family or social support, and traumatic experiences prior to immigration. Making matters worse, mental illness is often seen as taboo within many ethnic groups.

“Mental health is an issue that takes time to acknowledge and often to seek help for, and it's twice as hard for a newcomer,” Szücs says. “Many ethnic groups look at this as something shameful to not only the individual but also to the whole family or group, and so people tend not to seek help.”

Information on mental illness will be readily available at Saturday's Multicultural Health Fair, which takes place at the Croatian Cultural Centre (3250 Commercial Drive). Besides written materials, there will be a variety of workshops, including one in Korean called Immigration, Stress, and Mental Health, at 1:45 p.m., and one about depression and anxiety in the Punjabi community, at 3:15 p.m. Another examines domestic violence in Punjabi and Hindi (4:30 p.m.) and Vietnamese (12:15 p.m.).

Chronic health conditions are a serious threat to all Canadians, so the health fair will offer tips on preventive medicine. According to the AMSSA report, South Asians are at greater risk than other groups for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. People of First Nations, African, Latin American, and Asian descent are at higher risk for developing Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes than Canadians of Caucasian origin. And immigrant women with limited English proficiency are less likely to be screened for cervical and breast cancer than other Canadian women. Cervical cancer, the study notes, is a significant cause of mortality among Chinese Canadians.

The fair will offer free health screenings related to Type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, body-mass index, and dental health, as well as sessions on “laughter yoga” and meditation for stress relief.

Among the 50-plus exhibitors are AIDS Vancouver, the B.C. Cancer Agency, the B.C. Transplant Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Kidney Foundation of Canada, the Centre (a community centre serving lesbian, gay, transgendered, and bisexual people and their allies), and the YouthCO AIDS Society.

Plus, people can check out cooking demonstrations of everything from healthy vegan fare to spicy Thai cuisine, and catch live entertainment, including flamenco dance and Latin American music. More details about the fair can be found at

In other words, the fair isn't necessarily just for immigrants needing health information. It's also for anyone who wants to learn more about other cultures.

“Community involvement is the key for better health for all of us,” Szücs says.

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