Let me introduce you to Gerald, a 12 year old living in the small outback NSW town of Bourke – population 1,800. Gerald loves fishing, Rugby League (he barracks for the Penrith Panthers) and lives with his Mum, Dad, Nan, brothers – Steven (14) and Adrian (5), and sisters – Becky (3), Isabel (1 ½) and Ruthie (two weeks old).
Gerald is an Indigenous Australian. As we are unfortunately aware, Australia continues to retain developing world standards when it comes to the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In fact, Aboriginal Australians rank 103rd on the United Nations Index of Human Development (which considers life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living) compared to all Australians, who come in 4th.
Gerald’s Dad, Shaun, is 45 years old and suffers from diabetes and kidney disease. Last week, Gerald travelled 300km to the ‘big metropolis’ of Cobar (population 5,200) for his first-ever visit to the dentist (two adult teeth were removed and three fillings added). Little Ruthie was born with a low birth weight and has an 80 percent chance of developing hearing problems before her 5th birthday. And Nan (60), who has been suffering dementia for six years, was admitted to the local hospital two weeks ago where she will spend the rest of her days.
Indigenous health is an issue high on the agenda of the Public Health Association of Australia’s annual conference, which kicked off last week in Adelaide.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the health of Indigenous Australians is inequitable when compared to the rest of the Australian population. The rate of suicide in the Indigenous population is more than three times the non-Indigenous population. The burden of disease and injury for Aboriginal people is 2.5 times the level for non-Indigenous Australians, and dementia rates for older Aboriginal people are five times more than that of non-Indigenous Australians.
What’s more, Indigenous children born in Australia are three times more likely to die before the age of five than non-Indigenous children – survival rates similar to that of Cambodia. Indigenous men and women can expect to live 11.5 years and 10 years respectively, less than their non-Indigenous neighbours.
Last week, the previous Indigenous health minister – Warren Snowdon – was reinstated along with the Indigenous health portfolio as a result of public backlash.
One way to tackle the appalling statistics is to produce more Indigenous doctors. 150 Indigenous Australians are studying medicine in universities across the country – a move in the right direction. And 420km up the road from Bourke, the small rural town of Wilcannia has struck a pioneering agreement with the federal and NSW governments to set-up Indigenous-run small businesses, in addition to improving health services by establishing nurses in schools and setting up better healthcare for pregnant women. Gerald and his family have fingers and toes crossed that Bourke will soon follow suit.
We need to see proactive strategies based at ground level and focused on the premise of community education if we are to see any genuine improvements in the state of Australia’s Indigenous health.
When the health of some Australians is comparable to that of people living in third world countries we must commit to real change to close the gap and dissolve all inequities.