• PM Tony Abbott and Aboriginal Social Justice commissioner Tom Calma at a morning tea after the delivery of the Closing The Gap report. (AAP)
For a country rich in resources and opportunity, the Indigenous people of Australia do not share the same fortune when it comes to health.
By
Cassy Small

17 Mar 2014 - 1:16 PM  UPDATED 17 Mar 2014 - 1:57 PM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can expect to live 10-17 years less than non-Indigenous Australians. The babies of Aboriginal mothers are twice as likely to die as other Australian babies, and in general Indigenous Australians experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease and diabetes.

These are startling statistics from a country that enjoys the privilege of having one of the highest life expectancies in the world. For a country rich in resources and opportunity, the Indigenous people of Australia do not share the same fortune when it comes to health.

The reasons for the gap in Indigenous health are complex. Decades of discrimination, inaccessible health services, a misrepresentation of Indigenous Australians working in the health industry and failure to address root causes such as substandard education, housing and infrastructure all contribute.  

Oxfam’s National Close the Gap day is March 20, a day designed to create awareness, spark conversation and remind politicians on the inequality of health care that exists in our own country. Last year 145,000 people registered to support the campaign by holding a small event, like a morning tea, to discuss Indigenous health with family, friends and colleagues.

Oxfam Australia’s Indigenous Rights Policy Advisor Andrew Meehan says support of the campaign has helped put Indigenous health back on the agenda with government officials. “Registered events this year have now hit a record of 1060, showing an undeniable groundswell of support from everyday Australians expecting governments to keep their promise to invest in Indigenous health. It’s clear Australians care about this issue and expect our leaders to act,” Meehan said. 

In 2008 The Council of Australian Government set a series of goals to decrease the general gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Earlier this year the progress of these goals were reviewed. In the areas of health, the goal of closing the life expectancy gap by 2031 has seen little improvement. Only the Northern Territory looks set to achieve this goal. More optimistic though is the goal of halving the gap in Indigenous mortality rates in children under five. If the current rate of improvement continues this goal is set to be achieved by 2018.

A number of aid organisations and humanitarian groups are working tirelessly to do their bit to close the gap, One Disease at a Time is a not for profit organisation with the vision to systematically target and eliminate one disease at a time. Currently in its sights is scabies, a highly contagious skin disease which affects seven out of ten children Indigenous children before their first birthday. Left untreated, scabies can lead to chronic disease and even death. It can be disfiguring, children are forced to miss school and employment and personal relationships can be impacted. “Recognising the importance in giving kids the best start in life, one of our core program goals is to reduce scabies rates in children under five years old. Among children living in households with crusted scabies, we have seen an 88 per cent reduction in their time spent in hospital for scabies,” says founder of One Disease at a Time Dr Sam Prince.

One Disease at a Time work closely within communities to achieve their goals, something Meehan says is a critical element in closing the gap. “We’re pushing the government to invest in community controlled health. These are the people better placed to identify the services that are actually required. Focusing on this area is also an investment in jobs, giving these people an opportunity into a health career path,” he says.

Assistant Minister for Health Senator Fiona Nash says the government is responding to the call with around $800 million in grant funding to organisations for Indigenous specific primary health and allied health care, the majority of which are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs). “ACCHOs deliver culturally appropriate and sustainable primary health care services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  Many communities have different cultures and histories so different needs may need to be addressed by locally developed, specific strategies,” she says.

Further to this, a $1.3 billion dollar investment in 2013-14 has been pledged for health projects including child and maternal health and the management of chronic diseases with specific focus on reducing the factors that create risk for disease including smoking and diet.

Dr Prince believes the secret to success in closing the gap is sharing stories of hope. “These will serve to ignite change in Indigenous communities, amongst the next generation of medical practitioners, and Australians as a whole.”