Health is our most precious resource as human beings. Without our physical and mental health, our lives become a struggle, regardless of how much wealth and power we can amass.
What makes a healthy community? It’s not just having enough hospitals, doctors, nurses and access to proper and timely care: socioeconomic status, education, culture and family are also strong drivers behind whether or not we are a healthy society.
There is no doubt that how a community’s children fare is a strong indicator of that community’s overall health.
Troubling health statistics show us raising healthy babies and children is a critical responsibility we all share.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority’s Health Area Profile, statistics compiled from various sources over several years, reveals that in Port Alberni and the West Coast, we must address child abuse, children in care, teenage pregnancy and how well our children are prepared to succeed in life.
As VIHA’s Central Vancouver Island medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback points out, abuse is a broad term that not only includes physical abuse, but also emotional and sexual abuse as well as child labour.
The 2011 health profile reveals there are many more cases of child abuse (18.1 per 1,000) here than B.C. (7.0) and VIHA (10.9). Those statistics dropped in 2012 to 17.4 per 1,000 in Port Alberni while the others remained the same.
“Parenting skills are integral to preventing abuse,” Dr. Hasselback said.
There are programs that can help parents struggling with their child’s behaviour, including The Period of Purple Crying.
This program is designed to help parents normalize infant crying behaviour and develop harm-free strategies to cope.
This includes seeking support or removing themselves temporarily from the stress of the situation.
Hasselback confirmed there is evidence the program reduces unwanted behaviours such as physical abuse of infants, a tragic but real risk.
Newer programs like nurse-family partnerships support higher priority patients “for whom we are more likely to see outcomes we don’t want to be seeing,” Hasselback explained.
To provide a measure of how important Early Years programs run out of VIHA’s health unit on Sixth Avenue are, consider this: one-third of all families in Port Alberni have at some point accessed its Lunch Club program.
Lunch Club supports mothers-to-be and new moms (both teenagers and adults), providing food coupons, prenatal vitamins, cooking classes and nutritional advice, transportation (if needed) and most importantly, support and access to health care professionals.
While there are no cultural distinctions, Aboriginal women can access either the health unit program or similar programs run out of Knee-Waas or Port Alberni Friendship Center.
Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council offers programs for mothers living on reserve.
Sharon Anderson, clinical nurse leader for Alberni and the West Coast, explained the Lunch Club is one of many programs funded by the health authority and Ministry of Children and Families that aid women regardless of their economic status, social barriers or any personal issues they may be facing.
“We try to reduce the barriers as much as possible and make this a comfortable environment,” she said.
Public health nurses visit area schools, talking about reproductive health, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
In 2011 there were many more teen pregnancies in the Alberni area (58.5 per 1,000) than in B.C. (27.6) or VIHA (31.5), according to VIHA’s health report.
The change in statistics was negligible in 2012.
Anderson explained there is a cultural preference and generational acceptance in some groups of choosing to have children at a younger age.
The good news is the rates of teen fertility (the number of teens who give birth to babies) is trending downwards after a spike in the 1980s and 1990s.
As with many health concerns, the answer to reducing teen pregnancies is early intervention and better education.
The key is to provide support for younger moms who need it, like the Hummingburde Child Care Centre, located at Alberni District Secondary School. The facility is geared towards allowing teens with babies who want to return to school to have a convenient daycare option.
“These are in many cases women who may not have gone back to school otherwise,” Anderson pointed out.
The health unit offers a wide variety of publications to help guide parents in myriad areas, from becoming better parents, to quitting smoking, to the best care plan for a new baby and more.
Anderson encourages anyone who feels they may need support to drop in and learn about these programs.
Public nurses also visit new mothers in their homes for those who want support in caring for their newborn.
Anderson explained that because the programs are preventative, it’s difficult to glean how much they are helping, or what the situation would be without them.
“But we know that because of what we are doing, we are better off,” she said.
Yet, there are still challenges, according to the health profile.
There were significantly more children in care (29.9 per 1,000) here than in B.C. (9.4) and VIHA (13.0) in 2011. (Those numbers improved slightly in 2012: 27.2 per 1,000 in Port Alberni, 9.2 in B.C. and 13.4 in VIHA.)
Children who grow up in care experience disruptions that can affect their education, increase their chance of growing up to become homeless or marginalized, and continue a cycle of abuse.
Some statistics suggest girls who grow up in care are up to three times more likely to become teen mothers.
It is clear these statistics are interrelated and form part of a larger picture about how this community functions.
“Sometimes we need to put children in care because they need to be protected,” said Hasselback. He added that in many cases, the issues that affect a child’s ability to function well in society were ingrained before the child was placed into care.
A report by the McCreary Centre Society in 2011 revealed that children who enter the care system are among the most vulnerable in the province, but that there are practical ways they can be supported to achieve greater success in life.
For example, those who participated in sports and other extra curricular activities and felt supported by their peers and teachers had much better outcomes.
Having food security and caring adults in their lives is also key.
The report also found youth who lived without any adults in their household were particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes—some 16 per cent of 1,000 youths who had experience in the care system surveyed for the report admitted they were living in households without an adult.
“The reality is we shouldn’t have to have children in protection at any point. They should have help before that happens,” Hasselback said. He added that structured programs help, but community involvement is also key.
“It’s that old proverb— and it is true—that it takes a whole community to raise a child,” Hasselback said. “We have some formal structures in place…but oftentimes it is the informal connections and friends that can make an astounding difference.”
Some of the most disturbing statistics revealed in the health study are in the area of birth statistics. In 2011, Alberni had the highest rates of infant death in the health authority, 120 per cent higher than the VIHA average; This area also had the highest rate of still births in VIHA, 85 per cent higher than the average.
(In 2012, Alberni fell to second in VIHA in infant deaths.)
Still births occur in utero, when a fetus dies before it has taken a breath outside the mother’s womb.
Infant death occurs between the first breath outside the womb and one year of age.
Hasselback explained a percentage of infant deaths are related to something preventable: improper sleeping arrangements such as the positioning of infants and bed sharing or co-sleeping.
“This is a really good example of how data such as the profile can identify the problem,” he said, adding once the specific issue has been identified, programs can be implemented to help change those statistics. But the process takes time.
Julie Rushton, facilitator for Alberni Children First, explained the group was formed in the mid-2000s by concerned service providers, 45 in all, who came together “to make connections” vital to improving the health and welfare of Port Alberni’s children.
“We want this to be a rich community for children zero to six to develop in,” Rushton said.
She explained there are pockets where, statistically speaking, children are more vulnerable to health and learning challenges.
Central Port is one of those areas.
“In that area we know children are especially vulnerable to language delays,” Rushton said. “We know that when there are language delays, that can stop a lot of a child’s development.”
“We are giving parents information,” she said. “We need to help them utilize what does exist.”
One of the success stories is Alberni Children First’s partnership with Alberni Literacy on the PALS or Parents as Literacy Supporters program.
PALS supports parents to help their young children learn through play by providing tools and experiences any family can use in their own homes.
“The beauty of PALS is that it doesn’t matter what literacy level the parents have, they can still use these techniques,” Rushton said. “And it really builds parents’ self-esteem as well.”
Are things getting better for children aged zero to six years in Alberni?
Rushton said the numbers are holding steady in spite of the fact the economy has suffered, which she hopes is an indication the programs and services in place here are working.
Next week: Nurturing healthy school-aged children.