Thursday, May 30, 2024

Island Health’s new top medical officer eyes toxic drug crisis, health inequities

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Robust health monitoring, responding to inequities and the toxic drug crisis are among Vancouver Island’s new chief medical health officer’s top priorities as she begins her tenure.

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Dr. Reka Gustafson’s goal is to routinely measure the population’s health and use that data and qualitative factors to drive policies and services, while giving equal attention to all parts of the Island.

The former Vancouver Coastal Health medical officer worked primarily around communicable disease control there and one of the things she’s most proud of from that time is changing how HIV is diagnosed and managed.

“That collaboration meant that HIV incidence in British Columbia has been sustainably reduced and we’re actually the only province to have done that.”

After joining the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in February 2020, Gustafson said her focus was on monitoring the overall health of British Columbians during the pandemic and keeping schools open as long as possible. Recovering from the pandemic will need to include responding to how it exacerbated inequities globally and on the Island, Gustafson said.

“We know that young people, especially youth and young adults, were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, we know that the economic impact of the pandemic for those who were already economically disadvantaged was more significant.”

Her time in Vancouver also included the toxic drug crisis being declared an emergency. Gustafson said there needs to be a refocus around the toxic drug crisis as an increasingly deadly supply circulates on the streets. She echoed the call of many advocates for a safe supply of drugs.

”We need to work towards a safer supply for people who are accessing the illicit drug supply, that is their most immediate cause of death.”

The public health physician said the mortality rates rose as drug users had less access to lifesaving services when the pandemic hit. Minimizing the harm moving forward will take regulating the market, offering treatment and early prevention, she said.

“Problematic substance use has its roots in the social determinants of health and addressing at-risk childhood experiences, prevention programs in early childhood and in schools is going to need to be part of a comprehensive response.”

Gustafson also wants to tackle mental health and track how climate change is impacting the health of Islanders, and how it’s emboldening inequities. She said climate change and the toxic drug crisis will require health responses that are proportionate to the scale of the issues.

“There are communities in (Island Health) that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

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