Sick in the outback

Sick in the outback THE dismal state of aboriginal health has prompted both doctors and the government to make health care of the native Australians their top priority. Brendan Nelson, federal president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), has said aboriginal health is the "number one public health problem in Australia".

According to AMA, aborigines are more likely to be unhealthy than their white counterparts. Aboriginal children are five times more likely to die before they are a year old than non-aboriginal children. Aborigines in their early 30s are 10 times more likely to die than other Australians. Also, diabetes and kidney failure are rampant among aborigines.

So poor are the health indices that Nelson, after a trip to native settlements in the Northern Territory, likened their health to that of non-aborigines in 1928, before antibiotics were introduced and social conditions had improved.

Even government officials present a stark picture. When Australian health minister visited an aboriginal camp near Katherine in the Northern Territory, he saw people draw water from what he called a filthy lake across the road from their ramshackle tarpaulin and tin homes.

Ironically, the formation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, an elected body of more than 250,000 aborigines, to oversee their health care has not changed things for the better. Even Aborigines have criticised the commission for spending money on office equipment and employing more staff than needed.

Nelson minces no words when he accuses the federal government of leaving the responsibility of aboriginal health care to the commission. "It's an abrogation of responsibility that may have been done with the best of intentions, but it's not helping the aboriginal people," he said.

Government representatives blame the great distance of the settlements from Canberra and the lack of coordination between the aboriginal commission and the health ministry. AMA is now coming out with a radical programme to improve aborigines' health. And Richardson wants the health ministry to take over part of the commission's activities.

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