Australian Medical Association (AMA) President, Dr Bill Glasson, has launched Lifting the Weight, the AMA's fourth report card on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
Dr Glasson said the AMA has collated important data on low birth weight and premature babies to give our political leaders and the public a snap shot of this huge public health problem – a problem that can be fixed with proper funding, resources, education and political will.
Indigenous babies are more than twice as likely to be born premature or underweight as non Indigenous babies, putting 1,140 children a year at a physical and developmental disadvantage.
Low birth weight babies (less than 2.5 kg) are more likely to die in the first year of life and are more susceptible to chronic illness, such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes later in life.
Major causes of low birth weight babies include smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and malnutrition in the mother.
"Women need access to culturally appropriate services early in their pregnancies," Dr Glasson said.
"Resources are needed to encourage and support women in their efforts to give up smoking during pregnancy and to help doctors diagnose and treat sexually transmitted early in pregnancy.
"Pregnant and breast feeding women should be screened for malnutrition and given access to healthy meals where necessary," Dr Glasson said.
The Mums and Babies Program at the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service in Queensland is one of five successful programs outlined in the Good News insert in the AMA's report card.
The program, which has been running for five years, has seen a reduction in low birth weight babies from 16 per cent to 11.7 per cent. Mean birth weight has increased by 170 grams and perinatal deaths have fallen from 58 per thousand to 22 per thousand.
The program is proof that well targeted, well funded measures get positive results.
"The Federal Government committed $62.9 million over three years in new money to Indigenous health measures in the May Budget in its Healthy for Life program. The AMA calls on the Government to use all of this money to provide very specifically targeted services such as the Mums and Babies program in all Aboriginal Health Services in Australia – remote and urban," Dr Glasson said.
"Such a program could be up and running across the country within three years if available funds are focussed on one such program. A well targeted investment will reap very positive returns, but if spread too thinly across a range of initiatives very little will be achieved," Dr Glasson said.
A copy of the report card is available on the AMA website at http://www.ama.com.au.