Summit focuses on combating health risks facing people of African descent

Jean Augustine is the honorary chair of the Black Leadership Health Summit. Jean Augustine is seen Friday, Dec 12, 2003 in Ottawa when she was minister of state for multiculturalism and status of women . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

TORONTO — Participants attending the first Black Leadership Health Summit say a targeted approach is needed to better address health issues faced by people of African descent, a population typically at higher risk for many chronic diseases.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario helped with the launch Friday of the inaugural summit, a two-day conference working toward laying the groundwork to develop a Black Health Network in Ontario.

The network’s focus will be on prevention and care of chronic diseases within the black community, in addition to exploring why particular ailments and medical conditions are more common among people of African descent.

In Ontario alone, black people are up to three times more likely than whites to have high blood pressure, according to Heart and Stroke. Statistics show 11.1 per cent of black people report having two or more major risk factors for cardiovascular disease — more than whites, Chinese or South Asians.

Black females have a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease than black males. And on average, strokes may also occur at an earlier age among black males compared to other ethnic groups.

Research of both Canadians and Americans of African and Caribbean origin have shown they don’t live as long as the rest of the population, and are more likely to get diseases like prostate cancer, heart disease and stroke younger, said Dr. Kwame McKenzie with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Risk of diabetes and sickle cell anemia is also higher among black people, he noted.

“In the past, everybody has thought ‘Just the one size fits all (model).’ We’ll just do excellent health care for all and that will be fine. But that hasn’t made any difference to our rates of illness,” said McKenzie, a senior scientist of social equity and health research at CAMH and a featured summit speaker.

“What needs to happen is there needs to be a specific focus so that we live as long as everybody else and we don’t develop illnesses earlier than anybody else.”

Jean Augustine, the summit’s honorary chair and Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner, said the dialogue surrounding specific health issues facing the black community has been ongoing for years.

“We cannot speak in discordant and disparate voices,” said Augustine, a former federal Liberal government minister who was elected Canada’s first black female MP in 1993.

“I think it’s important to bring all of the talent, the skills, the research and to have the focus of policymakers, the focus of people within health facilities and ministries and others to address the issue.”

Negative social determinants of health like poverty, education and poor housing are problems affecting all people. But McKenzie said those in Canada of Caribbean or African origin are more likely to be exposed to them, which can lead to stress and getting a number of illnesses. The stresses of migration to a new country can also increase illness risk, he noted.

McKenzie said other ethnic populations in Canada are organizing themselves within groups to address specific health needs in their communities, but until now, the black health leadership has not followed suit.

“You have to do the work with your own community and understand your own community before you link with the other communities in order to move things forward,” he said.

Richard Phillips, community mission specialist with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, said while they’re first concentrating their efforts within one province, this is a Canadian issue for all people of African descent.

They will be looking at how to expand to other places with large black populations, such as Nova Scotia, Montreal, Alberta and B.C., once the network is launched next May, he said.

“This is a very important focus for, I think, the society as a whole, because one of the things that we recognize is that the health-care system is burdened in general,” Phillips said.

“If they cannot figure out ways of handling health issues for those people most affected by chronic illnesses, then the overall effects will be greater — and this is a problem — and the overall expense will be greater.”

While putting together the framework for the network, Phillips said they plan to have a second summit in the fall following Ontario’s provincial election in October to look at how to better partner with the new government and explore what’s needed to move the agenda forward.

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