Newcomer kids to Canada face chronic health risks. Here’s how these researchers hope to help

Try as she might, Momina Reza finds that it’s difficult to get her kids to be active and eat healthy foods. 

One of the biggest barriers for the single mom, who moved to Canada from Pakistan nearly seven years ago, is the cost. 

“I ask about different programs and their prices, they are high for me and so I cannot afford that,” said Reza, who lives in Hamilton, Ont.’s Riverdale neighbourhood. 

Reza says her 11-year-old and five-year-old boys are “doing well,” but she acknowledges that it’s a “struggle” to even afford nutritious food for them. 

And for other immigrants like herself, Reza says language barriers and long work hours can also make it difficult for parents to encourage their children to take part in extracurricular activities. 

Barriers like these are likely contributing to health problems being seen in newcomer children, says Dr. Gita Wahi, a pediatrician at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

Through her practice, Wahi says she’s noticed an increasing number of newcomer kids are getting diagnosed with obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

“What we’ve seen in specifically childhood obesity is that newcomer children often when they arrive have lower rates of obesity, and over time, obesity rates increase to the current rate of the Canadian population,” she said. 

And she’s not the only one to point this out. 

In recent years, emerging research has found that immigrant kids in Canada are developing chronic adult health conditions as a result of their life circumstances. 

Past Canadian research highlighted a healthy immigrant effect, which is when an immigrant’s health deteriorates after they arrive and settle into their new country. 

A woman stands on a field looking off camera.
Dr. Sonia Anand, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., leads SCORE!, an intervention program to help prevent chronic diseases in children who arrive from other countries. She hopes to eventually create a program that will reduce barriers for newcomer families and prioritize their children’s health. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

It’s unclear whether that’s also happening among children that arrive in Canada from other countries, but researchers say there are trends that indicate poor health in some young immigrants

“We have a window by when children arrive and families arrive in Canada to make an impact to hopefully prevent obesity-related complications,” Wahi told CBC News. 

Dr. Sonia Anand, a professor of medicine at McMaster University, calls it an “alarming observation” that newcomer children from racially diverse backgrounds are developing chronic adult conditions, such as diabetes.  

“If you have a chronic disease as a child that will impact your future health and likely shorten your lifespan, so I consider it an urgent problem,” she said.

Anand says some of the risk factors include the child’s racial background, their family’s socioeconomic status, access to nutritious food and level of physical activity. 

New program aimed to improve kids’ health

Helping immigrant families connect with nature and prioritize exercise is at the core of SCORE! — a new intervention program that Anand is currently developing with a team of researchers at McMaster University. 

“Rather than treat children who have chronic diseases, we are trying to develop interventions that will prevent those chronic diseases,” said Anand, who is the project’s principal investigator. 

SCORE! launched in April last year and is still in the initial design phase, which involves getting to know the needs of new immigrants and testing out solutions. 

The pilot phase is focusing on 75 children from Hamilton’s Riverdale neighbourhood. 

The researchers chose the Riverdale community because about half of its residents identify as a visible minority like South Asian and Middle Eastern. One quarter of the residents alos immigrated to Canada in the last 20 years and a quarter identify as low income, according to Statistics Canada. 

Data isn’t being collected on the enrolled kids, so the researchers said they don’t know if any of them are currently struggling with obesity or Type 2 diabetes. But the researchers know, based on the demographics of the community, that they are at risk for future health issues. 

A girl standing on a field looks off camera.
Jiya Sharma, 13, is one of the 75 kids taking part in the SCORE! She says she can spend up to 14 hours a day watching screens. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

And what they’re hearing is that the kids tend to spend more time looking at screens than being physically active. 

“I often just watch TV, sometimes go to the park,” said 13-year-old Jiya Sharma, one of the participants. 

“I don’t own a phone, but I do spend a lot of time on my tablet and the television.”

Sharma told CBC News that depending on the day she can spend anywhere from 10 to 14 hours looking at a screen. 

So far, as part of the program, kids like Sharma have been involved in summer activities like playing soccer and tennis, while also being educated about nature by going to a community garden and exploring Hamilton’s conservation areas. 

Anand says along with cost and language barriers, they’re also learning about other issues families encounter. 

In particular, she says families living in apartments find it hard to access green spaces, and parents have trouble figuring out how to sign their kids up for extracurriucular activities.

And while there are existing community programs geared to help, there are not enough services that focus on the health of kids, according to Lily Lumsden, the manager of immigrant and youth services for the Hamilton-Burlington YMCA.

The lure of unhealthy foods

In an average year, Lumsden says the YMCA in Hamilton can support about 7,000 to 8,000 newcomers across all its programs. 

“We work a lot with newcomer teenagers so when they come to Canada, they want to be Canadian and so when it comes to food and food choices they want to go to McDonalds and get that $1 burger or Whopper Wednesday,” Lumsden said, referring to a Burger King promotion.

She said the family might have access to foods that they didn’t have back home. 

“That can create health issues that a settlement agency like us, we don’t have the right resources to deal with that,” she said. 

Lumsden added that services aimed at these communities need to also have a cultural understanding of the food choices and exercise behaviours that are typical for them. 

Behind a fence, kids kick a ball around.
Kids part of the SCORE! program are playing a game of soccer — one of the activities the researchers have organized encourage them to be more physically active. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

For this reason, Lumsden says they’re eager to be working alongside SCORE! and help create more programs that are informed by the people they’re trying to help. 

“It’s allowing the newcomers to have concentrated time with people that can make a difference and having conversations about their neighbourhood, because sometimes those conversations and feedback get lost,” she said. 

Researchers want to create the ‘ultimate toolkit’

The first phase of SCORE! is expected to last until March 2024, after which Anand says they will begin to evaluate the interventions pending more funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

“We’re uncovering a number of barriers and trying to break down those barriers and see what could work in the community,” she said. 

Anand says they will measure the success of the interventions by gathering information on how the children feel their well-being was impacted. 

The end goal of this project, according to Anand, is to create a program for newcomer families that will reduce barriers and prioritize children’s health.

The hope is that the pilot will create the “ultimate toolkit for cities to prepare for newcomers when they come to town,” says Anand.

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