Posted on February 22, 2008

Canada’s Immigrants Face Health Risks

Carlito Pablo, (Vancouver), February 21, 2008

Jagdeep Singh was an information-technology professional in India before he moved to Canada. He arrived in September last year, and his family joined him three months later. Singh has yet to find a job, but he sounded very upbeat when he talked to the Georgia Straight by phone from his home in Surrey. “You need some time to adapt to the way things are here,” said the 35-year-old father of one.

One thing that takes time to understand, according to Singh, is how the health-care system works. He noted that choosing a family doctor is a challenge. “It’s difficult to find a doctor you can trust,” he said.

When Singh learned about a health fair being organized by the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of British Columbia ( ), he and his wife, Seema, decided to volunteer with the event, to be held on Saturday (February 23) at the Croatian Cultural Centre. The fair’s workshop on how to access health services fits their needs as newcomers.

New immigrants like Singh typically arrive in Canada with better-than-average health, according to a 2005 Statistics Canada study titled Dynamics of Immigrants’ Health in Canada: Evidence From the National Population Health Survey. But the same study also pointed out that this “healthy immigrant effect” diminishes over time.

When immigrants are grouped into Europeans and non-Europeans, the report suggests that people belonging to the latter category are more likely to claim later that their health has deteriorated. “Recent non-European immigrants’ higher risk of reporting a deterioration in their health is mirrored in increasingly frequent doctor contacts,” the study stated.

The study noted that immigration disrupts a person’s life. It’s a stressful process in which one loses support from an established network of family and friends. This is more telling with non-European immigrants.

Citing data from the mid ’90s, the StatsCan paper stated that “non-European immigrants were more likely than the Canadian-born population to report low social support.”

“The likelihood of a deterioration in health was also related to socioeconomic status, specifically, low education and low household income,” the study noted. “Findings from the literature on immigrants’ economic integration in Canada have shown that those with non-European origins are more likely than those with European origins to have low-paid jobs that require little education. Because immigrants with European origins share a similar culture with the Canadian-born, they may encounter fewer social, economic and lifestyle barriers than do those from non-European countries.”

According to Immigration in Canada: A Portrait of the Foreign-born Population, 2006 Census, released last year, Asians, including those from the Middle East, comprise the biggest group of newcomers to Canada. Of the 1.1 million who arrived between 2001 and 2006, six in 10 were Asians.

Ilene Hyman, an assistant professor with the University of Toronto’s department of public health sciences, took a look at existing studies on immigration and health in her 2007 paper Immigration and Health: Reviewing Evidence of the Healthy Immigrant Effect. What Hyman compiled suggested that certain immigrant subgroups appear to be more prone to some health conditions than others.

“Research on Canadians of South Asian, Chinese, and European origins suggested that South Asians, particularly females, have tended to experience an increased risk of heart disease as well as an increased risk of hypertension with increasing length of stay in Canada,” Hyman noted.

AMSSA executive director Lynn Moran told the Straight that the February 23 multicultural health fair will provide immigrants with information in various languages. Attendees may also learn such things as when to call for an ambulance or when to go to a clinic.

Moran explained that for a number of immigrants, language is a big barrier. In some cases, according to her, doctors have limited time to talk to their patients and can’t offer immigrants extra information. “A lot of health services are offered in English,” she said.

Describing herself as a bit of a foodie, Moran said that if there’s one concern immigrants need not fret about, it’s the availability of traditional food items in community stores. Often associated with a sense of well-being, such fare can at least make one feel at home.