A feature article on an Australian TV website has highlighted the issue of the indigenous health gap; an issue that echoes the situation of Māori here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The article, by Bianca Nogrady, highlights the fact that indigenous Australians have a life expectancy ten years lower than non-indigenous Australians. She identifies social determinants of health such as income, access to affordable housing, stress and race as key factors in this gap.
Crowded housing and ear infections
Nogrady cites an example, by Professor Dennis McDermott from Adelaide’s Flinders University, of housing and ear infections. Where a large number of people live at close quarters – as is more common among poorer indigenous people – children are more likely to suffer repeat ear infections as they are passed around the household.
“What happens is that non-Indigenous kids get it maybe once, they have a brush with it, and then it’s gone,” says Prof McDermott. “But with Indigenous kids in an overcrowded situation, it goes around and comes back, goes around and comes back, such that it’s a huge impact on hearing loss.”
This hearing loss has life-long effects. Children can’t hear in school, adults can’t hear on the job, it can impact on mental health, anger management, and wellbeing, McDermott says.
The impact is doubled with racism
According to Prof. McDermott racism has a clear and proven impact on people, as does connection to country – or the land from which people come.
“That psycho-spiritual connection to country, and doing these ceremonies, observing, burning the country when necessary…, is actually a positive contributor to health.”
In Australia there is hard evidence to support that those people living ‘on country’ and experiencing at least some elements of a traditional lifestyle are healthier. They tend to be more physically active, have a better diet, lower body-mass index, lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose levels, lower prevalence of diabetes and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Despite the issue seeming insurmountable Prof. McDermott is optimistic. He compares the health gap to climate change, explaining that there is no vested interest in listening to the evidence and making a change. However, he says; “I think if we can only get that message through and build a critical mass of discourse in the community, then the politicians will fall in line.”