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Vancouver city hall stiffs major urban health conference

In the constellation of healthy, liveable cities, Vancouver is a big star, known as a world leader in tackling tough health problems, particularly drug dependence.

So why did the city’s political leaders stay away when the city hosted the 7th International Conference on Urban Health (ICUH), last week at the Westin Bayshore?

And why did Vancouver stiff the event when it came to funding?

The three-day conference attracted 500 delegates and world authorities on successful interventions that integrate knowledge from the latest research. Sustainability, partnerships, and the impact of social and physical environments were major themes.

The event also pulled in big names and major funders: the World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, among others.

Many were surprised, however, by the no-shows, most notably the City of Vancouver.

In recent years, host cities and states have tended to fuss over this gathering. The mayors of Baltimore and Amsterdam officially opened the event when it came to their cities in the last two years. And New York City’s Commissioner for Health was there to welcome delegates when the ICUH was held there in 2003.

All three cities also gave significant support to the conference, in funding and in resources.

Vancouver didn’t give a cent and the mayor stayed away.

“The conference brings visibility to whoever hosts it and can leverage support for new funding, networks and programmes,” said David Vlahov, founding President of the International Society for Urban Health.

Our provincial government seemed to understand that. Its healthy living initiative, Act Now BC, had a large booth, and the province offered financial support.

The federal government was less in evidence. The Public Health Agency of Canada had a booth and held meetings, but Ottawa turned down requests to contribute to the conference.

Perhaps a reason was the Harper government’s opposition to harm reduction -- most notably Vancouver’s successful supervised injection site -- another focus of the conference.

Did Mayor Sam Sullivan and the City keep their distance to avoid angering Stephen?

Perhaps, but an earlier decision by a certain Larry might better explain the odd behaviour of our Council.

In 2005, Mayor Campbell made a deal with his council to give $400,000 to an international conference on harm reduction, held here in April 2006.

So when staff proposed that the City contribute generously to the organization of last week’s big event, Council said “nyet” -- and gave nothing.

Mayor Sullivan’s council also took the opportunity to ban contributions of more than $5000 in support of any conference.

Penny-wise, perhaps -- but the absence of our civic leaders from last week’s gathering may have cost Vancouver millions in new public health investments and opportunities.

“The social and city planners at City Hall are engaged and understand the issues, but they are too stretched, and this city council doesn’t seem to have a clear vision,” said conference Chair Anita Palepu, an internist and senior researcher at St. Paul’s Hospital/UBC.

Jim Boothroyd was spokesperson for the NAOMI project conducting prescribed heroin trials in Vancouver, and researches and writes for the World Health Organization and others. The views expressed here are his own.

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