The Australian Medical Association's latest report on Indigenous health points to recent scientific breakthroughs which help to explain why the cycle of disadvantage is so hard to break.
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health report card highlights the impact early childhood experiences can have on genetic expression.
Thea Cowie reports.
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Unfortunately there's nothing new about inter-generational Indigenous disadvantage.
But Australian Medical Association national president Steve Hambleton says new developments in neuroscience, molecular biology and epigenetics provide a scientific explanation for the cycle of disadvantage.
"Now epigenetics, or the study of the way genes are switched on and off, we can now understand how those early life experiences become hard-wired into the body with lifelong effects on health and wellbeing. Early experiences can influence which of the person's genes are activated and de-activated and consequently how the brain and body development occurs."
The AMA report says repetitive stressful experiences early in life can cause changes in the function of genes that influence how well the body copes with adversity throughout life - including the development of emotional control, memory function and cognition.
The report cites research showing more than 20 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families with children under 16 experience seven or more life stress events in a year.
Chairman of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, Justin Mohamed, admits it's daunting to think about the impact early childhood events can have on a genetic level.
"It's very scary to think that an individual event or a multitude of events, or the environment that you were raised in, can actually switch off your potential of what you could be. And on the other side of the thing I think it's very encouraging to think that well there might just be some minor adjustments which actually can switch on so you can actually reach your potential."
Mr Mohamed says in many ways the science backs up what's long been known.
But he hopes the evidence will help focus efforts and investment on the early years - the years he says really change lives.
"They want evidence, they want to see where they can make the best investment to get the best return. So I think that this report will show that well here's some evidence. We know that if the right investment is made, the right rollout to frontline services, Aboriginal community controlled health services, that we can have really good turn around with the results."
The Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association chief executive officer, Romlie Mokak, says the report also highlights the importance of providing support to mothers- and fathers-to-be.
"Having all of that early education and support is really critical for fundamental things like having access pre-natally. When baby's born the connect between having all of that clinical support and education, the right nutrition and supportive environments can improve birth weights. And it's also about making sure that care continues once bub's born."
Recommendations from the AMA report include establishing a national plan for expanded maternal and child services including parenting and life skills education, expanding home visit services and building a strong sense of cultural identity and self-worth.
Mr Mokak acknowledges the report is just one of thousands written in an attempt to address Indigenous disadvantage.
But he hopes this one will receive the bipartisan support and funding needed to capitalise on its findings.
"The fact that the president of the AMA, Steve Hambleton, who's so committed to this agenda, chairs the taskforce that produced the report says something. This is however many thousands of doctors in the country who are saying this is important business for the medical fraternity. The biggest call here I think is for us to think about a future beyond a political cycle. My hope would be that it fits in terms of aligning with government, the Opposition and the Greens and others to say this is an important agenda for us to keep supporting."