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Canaries in the coal mine

The conditions in the Downtown Eastside have long been symptoms of a festering illness. While extreme poverty may be limited…

By Blake Sifton , in Blogs The Voiceless , on February 21, 2008

The conditions in the Downtown Eastside have long been symptoms of a festering illness. While extreme poverty may be limited to the downtrodden area, it appears as if its impact may literally infect the whole city.  

It has recently emerged that the number of Downtown Eastside residents carrying a superbug known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has increased by 250 percent over the last six years.  

While the area has been plagued by outrageously high rates of HIV, Hepatitis C and pneumonia, this most recent pandemic presents something new.  

It is feared that the disease may spread beyond the marginalized and the deprivation of the Downtown Eastside and infect the wider Vancouver population.  Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun describes the conditions which have created this potentially disastrous situation.  

“Low-income slums with attendant problems of malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitation, widespread substance abuse and poor baseline health are incubators for infectious diseases that can break out to afflict the comfortable.”

Dr. Elizabeth Bryce, a medical microbiologist and infection control specialist with Vancouver General Hospital articulates where we now stand. 

 “These (injection drug users) could be the canaries in the coal mine.”  

The drug-resistant superbug has the potential to impact the lives of Vancouver’s affluent population far more than the desperate panhandlers and burglars who have so far been the only reminder of the despicable conditions just down the street.  

This will not be an inconvenience. We cannot look at the ground and walk by, or purchase high-tech home security systems to keep us safe. 

 While the possibility of a city wide pandemic is horrifying, perhaps this will finally provide the impetus for a genuine concerted effort to address the source of the symptoms evident in the Donwtown Eastside.  

I have always believed that fundamentally most humans are motivated by self-interest.  

Regardless of altruistic rhetoric, we often disguise our personal interests as beneficial for society and ignore issues that do not directly affect us. 

As long as the problems in the area are someone else’s they will never be solved.