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theprovince.com, September 07, 2012

Life-expectancy jump astounds

Residents approach average lifespans; Insite, more detox credited
 
Public-health experts are astounded by new statistics that show residents of the drug-and disease-riddled Downtown Eastside in Vancouver are now living nearly as long as the average British Columbian.
 
Vancouver Coastal Health workers are still trying to understand causes behind a dramatic shift revealed in preliminary data, but there is a consensus that the neighbourhood's poorest residents are living longer and that rapid gentrification in Canada's poorest neighbourhood is also boosting overall life expectancy, with an influx of healthier, wealthier residents.
 
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1996, life expectancy in the DTES was more than nine years lower than the B.C. average.
 
By 2006, DTES life expectancy rose to just 5.3 years below the provincial average.
 
Now, unpublished Vancouver Coastal Health research from 2011 shows DTES life expectancy has jumped to 79.5 years, about two years below the average.
 
It's rare to see such a shift in a population's life expectancy, said medical health officer Dr. John Carsley.
 
He and his colleagues are trying to judge how much of the change can be attributed to gentrification and how much is due to improved health treatment, nutrition, housing and education.
 
"I think we all agree that it is some healthier people moving to the DTES, and there has been a substantial decrease in overdose deaths and HIV deaths," Carsley said Thurs-day.
 
Carsley said he believes the new data supports arguments that harm-reduction services offered in Vancouver's controversial supervised injection site - which was allowed to stay open with a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that said it has "been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact" - will be extended to other locations.
 
The facility, called Insite, is run by VCH and the non-profit Portland Hotel Society.
 
In an interview Thursday outside Insite, PHS director Mark Townsend said Insite's success, plus an addition of 70 detox beds within several blocks and better medical outreach to renovated low-income hotels are staunching the flood of overdose and AIDS deaths he witnessed in the late 1990s.
 
"The longer people stay alive, the more likely they are to get off drugs," Townsend said.
 
"It was so depressing 20 years ago because we had no detox. It was like cats dying . . . [drug addict deaths] had no relevance."
 
Lana Cleniuk, 43, said she owes her life to her detox bed in Onsite, located beside Insite.
 
Cleniuk came to the DTES from Saskatchewan 14 years ago and progressed from smoking heroin to injecting it every day.
 
Heroin forced her into sex "slavery" and prostituting herself to violent men. She's been beaten, strangled and had a knife put to her throat, she said. "Heroin took me down a hell of a road, chasing it every day.
 
"I had to do pretty degrading things just to get $10."
 
Cleniuk said she's been off heroin for three weeks, and, although the cravings are strong, she knows that, if she relapses, she will die quickly.
 
"I want to live a long life. I don't want to die down here."
 
Meanwhile, neighbourhood activist Jean Swanson said rents and property values have surged with the influence of the Wood-ward's development and, with hundreds of condos coming down the pipeline, "a vice" is squeezing out longtime Downtown Eastside residents.
 
Swanson said she simply can't believe the new VCH research.
 
"I think they must have screwed up the stats," Swanson said.
 
"If the life expectancy is just two years less than B.C., it doesn't mean people are getting better. It means that gentrification is pushing the poor out and they are taking their health problems elsewhere."
 
But Townsend disagrees.
 
He believes a limited number of poor are being displaced and, on a daily basis, he notices "100 little things" that contribute to the over-all improved health of residents.
 
"It's a lot of little things, and a lot of people deserve credit," he said.
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