Worrying trends among Australia’s Indigenous population with more chronic diseases: Report

According to an indigenous health expert, communities in the state's Gulf are recording some of the highest rates of chronic disease in Australia. In fact a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows 80 per cent of the life expectancy gap can be attributed to conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek will launch the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's latest findings on the health and welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at a health conference in Sydney on Thursday.

According to Chairperson of the Yippippi Gulf Indigenous Health Council, Francine George, chronic disease is crippling Indigenous communities in the Gulf. “In Normanton, they're finding that the children are heading towards chronic illness…The adults have chronic illness or are heading towards chronic illness. Heart disease is a major factor for people [as is] diabetes,” she said.

The federal government has committed to closing the life expectancy gap by 2030, and some progress has been made. There are less daily smokers in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, Year 12 retention rates have risen to 47 per cent and there are more indigenous home owners. Institute spokeswoman Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman said these statistics would all help close the gap. “Many chronic diseases have interrelated risk factors which are often associated with social and economic disadvantage in areas such as housing, education and employment…Much of this chronic disease is potentially preventable,” she said.

In another part of the report it was revealed that the rate of imprisonment for indigenous Australians has also been seen to have jumped by more than 50 per cent in the past decade with inmates now making up a quarter of the prison population.

In the report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the rate increased from 1248 per 100,000 adults jailed in 2000 to 1892 per 100,000 in 2010. There are almost 7600 indigenous Australians in prisons nationwide making up 26 per cent of the prison population despite representing just 2.5 per cent of Australia’s total population.

The report reads, “The rate of incarceration is relatively high among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people…This not only affects the health and wellbeing of those imprisoned, but also of their families and children. No such increase was noted among non-indigenous adults.” In Western Australia and South Australia, indigenous Australians were more than 20 times more likely to be jailed than the rest of the population in those states.

Australians for Native Tile and Reconciliation director Jacqueline Phillips called on the states and the Federal Government to act immediately to reduce the disproportionate numbers of indigenous people in the prison system. She added, “It is simply outrageous that indigenous Australians comprise more than a quarter of all people in prison, when they are just 2.5 per cent of the total population…There are initiatives and programs which have been shown to be successful in reducing rates of offending and re-offending, but they are under-funded and piecemeal…Governments must divert some of the money currently being spent on building and running prisons to fund programs in disadvantaged communities to reduce offending through a justice re-investment approach.”

In other findings the report added that in 2008 nearly half (49 per cent) of all indigenous households were comprised of families with dependent children, more than a third (39 per cent) of which were one-parent families.

Also nearly 65% of working-age indigenous Australians were in jobs in 2008, compared with nearly four out of five (79 per cent) non-indigenous Australians. Nearly half of all indigenous children were living in jobless families in 2006 - three times the proportion of all children and indigenous babies are twice as likely to be underweight. In 2008, indigenous households were nearly 2.5 times as likely to be in the lowest income bracket and four times less likely to be in the top income bracket as non-indigenous households. Poor access to public utilities and overcrowded houses remain significant problems, particularly in remote communities.

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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