Indigenous Elders call for caution over FASD

Indigenous welfare groups and Elders have urged the federal government not to stigmatise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as part of moves to combat Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

The Federal Parliamentary Secretary on Indigenous Affairs, Alan Tudge, believes Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder has reached crisis levels in many Indigenous communities.

He said research from the Fitzroy Crossing area in Western Australia's Kimberley Region has shown that one in four Indigenous babies is born there with FASD.

Mr Tudge said there is clear evidence that FASD is linked to learning problems in childhood and social problems in adulthood and believes alcohol restrictions have helped to combat rates of chronic disease in some Indigenous communities.

But Mr Tudge believes further reforms could be needed to address FASD more effectively, including the introduction of a welfare card as suggested by the mining magnate Andrew Forrest in a recent report on welfare policy.

"We've got this recommendation from Andrew Forrest and we're considering this at the moment," he said.

"There are many Indigenous communities who have put their hand up and said- 'Look we would like to enter into discussions with the federal government in relation to a card such as this and some of the other recommendations from Andrew Forrest.

"We're taking the submissions from those communities very seriously. But under no circumstances would we introduce a card that was only Indigenous specific."

A new report released by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare has highlighted the need for more research into the extent of FASD and the areas of the country where it is most prevalent, Mr Tudge said.

The report found poor awareness among many Australian medical practitioners about the Disorder and its treatment.

One of the report's authors, University of Sydney Professor of Paediatrics Elizabeth Elliott, said more research is needed into the impact of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

"A lack of information means a lack of awareness of the problem per se amongst health professionals and we know that health professionals don't think of diagnosing this," she said.

"They don't ask about alcohol use in pregnancy and they don't know how to make the diagnosis."

The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee says detailed research is currently underway into the incidence of FASD in WA's Fitzroy Crossing.

Committee chairman and Noongar Elder, Associate Professor Ted Wilkes from Curtin University said there is a critical need for a national study into the problem, which he believes is under-reported.

He believes community run programs could be used to restrict alcohol supply and distribution.

"There are people in this country who make a lot of money and profit out of selling alcohol to other Australians," he said.

"We need to work in with government systems and liquor systems in this country to diminish this. So we need to hold lots of other people accountable- not necessarily the mothers and the fathers who are caught up in social circumstances where alcohol and drug mis-use is actually a medication or an escape from what I call the poverty of racism in this country."

Bunuba Elder and Marinwarnitukra Womens' Resource Centre chief executive June Oscar agrees. Ms Oscar is currently working on the Fitzroy Crossing research project and said while there is clearly a crisis, the federal government should not to rush to conclusions until all the findings are published.

Ms Oscar also believes alcohol restrictions introduced in 2007 have helped to reduce the incidence of FASD but said care needs to be taken not to stigmatise Indigenous communities in the debate around tackling alcohol abuse.

"I believe that the sleeping giant is in the non Indigenous communities. But we have not seen a non Indigenous community step forward to acknowledge that there is a problem," she said.

"It has been in the Indigenous community where we have led and we have stepped forward to say that we do appreciate that this is affecting us. We want to understand what this is and what we need to do about it."

Source: World News Australia

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