Alcohol Continues to Ravage Australian Aboriginal Communities

A report by one of Australia's most respected research bodies has shown that alcohol abuse claims the life of an Aborigine every day and a half - twice the rate of their non-indigenous counterparts.  As Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, researchers describe the situation as "very bleak." 

Australia's National Drug and Research Institute found that among Aboriginal women who drink heavily, one of the main causes of death is liver damage.  Many others suffer hemorrhagic strokes - bleeding in the brain that can be caused by excessive binge drinking.

The institute, which is partly funded by the federal government, says alcohol abuse in Aboriginal men is more likely to lead to suicide.  Alcohol-related assaults and car accidents are other major causes of death in men.

In all, the report estimates more than 11 hundred 50 Aborigines - out of a population of fewer than 500,000 - died from injuries or disease linked to alcohol consumption between 2000 and 2004 - an average of one every 38 hours.  The average age of the victims was about 35 years.

The institute's Tanya Chikritzhs says alcohol abuse among Aborigines results from the expected causes.

"There's so much poverty and unemployment and lack of health services, lack of decent education, Chikritzhs says. "They all add up to what we call social determinants, which influence the likelihood of somebody coming up against alcohol or drugs - or tobacco, for that matter."

The picture varies greatly around the country.  In New South Wales, whose capital is the sophisticated city of Sydney, the number of alcohol-related deaths among Aborigines is stabilizing, partly because of the availability of medical treatment and counseling.

In remote parts of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, however, that sort of help is often very limited, and death rates are rising significantly. 

Researchers have described the situation in some isolated settlements as a time bomb that has already exploded, and will continue to spread misery for years to come.

Australia's Aborigines make up more than two percent of the country's population of 20 million. They suffer disproportionately high levels of poverty, unemployment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

Life expectancy for indigenous Australians is about 20 years less than it is for the rest of the population.


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