[ASC-media] Media release: Aboriginal health improving

CRCA Media crca.media at starclass.com.au
Wed Aug 2 00:39:44 CEST 2006

CRCA Media Release

EMBARGOED until 12.00 midday, Sunday, August 6, 2006


Health in Aboriginal communities is slowly improving.  Even the increases in death rates from chronic disease have slowed down a new study in the Medical Journal of Australia has found.

This study builds on earlier work which found that deaths from all causes were falling in every age group in the Northern Territory Indigenous population since the late 1960s.  Improving death rates could be seen in infectious diseases and injuries but not yet in chronic diseases.

The new report, which analysed data from 1977-2001, has shown an easing of the increases in death rates, or even falling death rates, for the common chronic diseases since the end of the 1980s.

*	The annual 13.5% increase in diabetes death rates in 1977-89 was slowed to a 3.2% annual increase in 1990-2001.
*	The annual increase in the ischaemic heart disease death rate (the biggest killer) was cut from 5.7% to only a 1.1% annual increase.
*	The annual 3.5% increase in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema) death rates was turned around so that there was a 5.7% fall in these death rates in the 1990s.
*	More modest improvements were found in the more static death rates for stroke and rheumatic heart disease.

"These early small changes give reason to hope that some improvements (possibly in medical care) have been putting the brakes on chronic disease mortality amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," the report states.  Meanwhile, adverse changes in diet and physical activity were still adding upward pressure to mortality from some chronic diseases.

 "This report has some really good news which supports a view that the work of dedicated Aboriginal health workers, nurses and doctors in Aboriginal communities is having an impact on chronic disease deaths. There is still a widening gap between Indigenous health and that of the general population - but we now have signs of real progress in the former." says study leader Dr David Thomas of the Menzies School of Health Research and University of Melbourne.
The report findings are of national significance.  They are confirmed by Western Australian data, and probably apply to Indigenous peoples in other states also, although the lack of detailed Indigenous statistics from these states makes it hard to confirm these NT trends. 

 Dr Thomas cautioned against attributing too much of the improvement to recent policy changes, as they may take 10-20 years before they impact on chronic disease death rates.

Pat Anderson, Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, said that the report challenges the popular belief that Aboriginal health is getting worse. 

"These figures don't say for sure that we have turned the corner on the most difficult task of preventing and treating these chronic diseases, but they give us very strong encouragement that we can do so if we persist in improving health service delivery to Aboriginal communities," she said. 

"The results contradict a widely-held opinion in the Australian community that increasing the spending on Aboriginal healthcare has made little difference.  In fact they show the opposite.  It appears that improved access to primary healthcare has been making a positive impact on these chronic diseases just as it did earlier on childhood infections. " 

"There must be no complacency about these results," Pat Anderson warned.  "Australian death rates are still declining faster than NT Aboriginal death rates, so the gap between Aboriginal health and Australian health is still widening. 

"We need to keep up the effort to ensure we turn around the Aboriginal health situation in this country, and start to close the gap between the health of Aboriginal and other Australians."

The researchers in this study come from three member organisations of the CRC for Aboriginal Health: the University of Melbourne, Menzies School of Health Research, and the NT Department of Health Community Services.  The researchers were supported by funding from the NHMRC.
More information:

Dr David Thomas - Menzies School of Health Research - 08 89227610 & 0408 482986

Professor Ian Anderson - CRCAH/University of Melbourne - 03 83449385 or 0407 227825 

Alastair Harris - CRCAH Communications - 08 89 227954 or 0409 658 177

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