Nutritional deficiencies among indigenous populations: two studies

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Latest studies have shown that some of the basic nutritional needs of indigenous Australians are not being met.

Iodine Deficiency

They find iodine deficiency for the first time among an Aboriginal population in the NT. This deficiency was previously thought to occur only in the nation’s south-eastern states. The study involved nearly 400 teenagers of aboriginal origin living in remote as well as urban areas of the Darwin Health Region, which covers 120,000 km-square of the top end of the NT.

According to lead researcher Dr Dorothy Mackerras of the Darwin-based Menzies School of Health Research urine examinations revealed mild to moderate iodine deficiency, and the effect of this should be the subject of future research.

She said, “Our results are a reminder that iodine deficiency affects males and females of all ages, although most surveys target only primary school-aged children and pregnant women… We recommend that future health studies in indigenous populations should assess the possibility that iodine deficiency may be a significant contributor to ill health and disability.”

She however added that the situation was “expected to have improved” as the samples were collected between 2005 - 2008 and, critically, before the nationwide move to mandatory bread fortification with iodized salt in late 2009. Iodine is an important micronutrient for the healthy development of the brain, and iodine deficiency is the world’s leading cause of mental retardation in children.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Another study highlighted the “highly prevalent” problem of low levels of vitamin D among the indigenous population. University of Adelaide researcher Dr Simon Vanlint included 58 Aboriginal adults in South Australia in his study.

Results showed that significantly lower vitamin D levels compared to those with paler skin. He explained that the brown skin pigment melanin filters ultraviolet light and thus darker-skinned individuals synthesize less vitamin D and this can lead to a range of health problems. “Vitamin D insufficiency is highly prevalent in this population of adult Aboriginal Australians, with low levels found in all seasons other than summer,” Dr Vanlint said. “This has also been shown in African-Americans, Pacific Islander and Maori people and Indigenous Canadians,” he added.

Vitamin D is another important micronutrient that is essential in helping the body to absorb calcium and maintain healthy bones, muscles and teeth. Its deficiency may lead to bone and muscle pain, rickets in children and osteoporosis. There is also evidence that this deficiency may lead to a wide range of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, mental health problems, skin disorders and some auto-immune diseases.

“If appropriate sunlight exposure is not sufficient or not possible, vitamin D is very safe to give as a supplement, and is not expensive,” Dr Vanlint said adding, “Spending a little bit more time in the sun could be helpful. Although it's important that that be done in the morning before about 10:00 or after about 3:00 in the afternoon because we don’t want to give people too much sunshine… You can get vitamin D from foods, although the richest foods in vitamin D are oily fish, so sort of things like salmon and sardines and what have you.”

Both research papers are published in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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