On issues ranging from addictions to infectious diseases and health promotion, Chatham-Kent’s new top doctor is urging a collaborative approach within the community.
Shanker Nesathurai, announced earlier in the week as the municipality’s acting medical officer of health, addressed health board members at the end of Thursday’s meeting, which took place in-person.
“The substantial goal of everyone in public service is to provide a foundation so that every person can live to their full potential,” he said.
“Health is more than the absence of recognized disease … it’s a much broader construct.”
Nesathurai will serve in an acting capacity, according to the Health Protection and Promotion Act, until official approval is received from the minister of health.
Tuesday was his first official day on the job. He replaces David Colby, who announced his retirement last year but stayed in the position until a permanent replacement was found.
Nesathurai said the community is “gradually recovering” from the pandemic, which he admitted was disruptive to everyone’s way of life.
“It has affected every person, every family, every school, every business, every institution,” he said. “But COVID-19 isn’t going away. Rather, I think we have to move to normalization, which is where COVID-19 will be managed like other infectious diseases by the public health service, and physicians and hospitals in the community at large.”
He added the province likely will provide additional guidelines later this year concerning vaccinations, which he said wouldn’t just relate to COVID-19, but also the flu.
On the topic of addictions, the doctor noted there were 45 drug-related deaths in Chatham-Kent last year, calling it a concerning number.
“We have to think of substance use disorder as any other disorder,” he said. “We really have to shift to a different focus.”
He said a decision about a possible safe consumption site requires contemplation within a larger conversation, calling it only one component to tackling the crisis.
He said many questions would need to be answered before lining up on the “yes or no” side.
“I think that, if the board of health and the community choose to have a safe injection site, that’s something they can move forward with,” he said. “Would there be better options to use our resources to help people with opioid use disorder? Does it make sense in a rural area where people can’t travel as easily?
“I would say as a general construct, that safe injection sites keep people alive while they’re still using, for some people. That’s worth it in itself … We try to keep people who smoke and have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease alive in the emergency department. They don’t have to make a commitment to stop smoking. We still give them oxygen, still treat their pneumonia.”
Nesathurai urged people to consider getting a naloxone kit in the event they encounter someone suffering from an overdose, saying it could save a life.
He also wants a renewed focus on promoting and protecting the health of children, given that chronic disease rates in Chatham-Kent are among the highest in the province.
Nesathurai received his doctor of medicine from McMaster University in Hamilton, and his master of public health from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
He served as medical officer of health for the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit from 2018 to 2021, and most recently as acting medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
“I think all of us, the people who work in medicine and in health, want to somehow make a difference moving forward,” he said.