PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER
More than one-third of young aboriginal people in B.C. who use illicit drugs are infected with hepatitis C, a new study shows.
While high rates of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) are not unexpected, particularly among intravenous drug users, the research found that members of this group who are children of residential-school survivors have twice the rate of infection.
"This study confirms the devastating impact that the trauma experienced through residential schools continues to (have on) young people today," said Chief Wayne Christian, leader of the Splatsin Secwepemc Nation and co-author of the study.
He said young people often turn to drugs as a way of coping with "unresolved historical and lifetime trauma, including the impact of the residential school system."
Earlier research showed that children of those who attended residential schools suffer markedly higher rates of sexual abuse, are more likely to be in foster care, and are more likely to use illicit drugs. But this study is the first to show that the impact includes higher rates of infectious disease.
Almost 70 per cent of children of residential-school survivors in the study group were infected with HCV, compared with 35 per cent of those who did not have a parent in residential school.
The new findings, published in the journal Open Medicine, flow from the Cedar Project, which focuses research on aboriginal youth in Vancouver, Prince George and Kamloops, B.C. It aims to understand the root causes of the dual epidemics of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C in aboriginal communities.
This aspect of the research involved 512 young people aged 14 to 30 in Vancouver and Prince George. More than half the participants, 286, reported injection drug use.
According to the findings, the major risk factors for hepatitis C infection are daily injection-drug use (2.7 times more likely to be infected), reusing or sharing syringes (2.4 times), having a parent who attended residential school (1.9 times) and being a young woman (1.9 times more likely).
While drug use in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, and the related high rates of infection with HIV and HCV, garner a lot of media attention, the new study shows that drug use and infection rates are actually higher in Prince George, a smaller and more remote community.
Patricia Spittal, an associate professor in the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, and co-author of the study, said the high rate of HCV infection among young aboriginal people in Prince George is "very concerning and may be a warning of a larger epidemic in the North in the future."
Chief Christian said the new research underscores that the much-publicized residential school apology offered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 was not enough. The chief said community-based programs are required to help survivors and their offspring - young women in particular - cope and heal.
Canada has about 80,000 survivors of the residential school system, including 35,000 in B.C.