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Australia's Aborigines Bracing for Swine Flu Onslaught

Community leaders say that swine flu is sweeping through Australia's largest aboriginal communities on Palm Island off the Queensland coast. Elders say the government's approach to tackling the disease in indigenous communities is not working.

The latest victim on Palm Island of the H1N1 virus is a pregnant woman, who lost her unborn child after contracting the disease.

Officials estimate that more than 10 percent of the island's population of 3,000 people has been infected, although authorities do not yet have an exact figure.

Like indigenous groups and poor communities around the world, Australia's Aborigines are considered to be more vulnerable to the H1N1 flu than other groups because they suffer higher rates of chronic disease. They also often have limited access to health care and live in overcrowded homes, which make it easier for the virus to spread.

Medical workers have set up a special clinic on the island to treat flu patients, and the government has flown in supplies of antiviral drugs. Tribal elders, however, call on state and federal governments to improve their swine flu strategies for Aborigines.

Professor Michael Gracey represents Unity of First People of Australia, a community organization, and says Aborigines need to be better informed about the flu.

"It is very important also for mainstream health professionals, in other words Western doctors and nurses and public health officials, to communicate better [and] that perhaps the best way to get messages across to these high risk people, like indigenous communities, are one on one," he said.

More than 13,000 cases of the H1N1 virus have been confirmed in Australia. Although most patients suffer only a mild illness, scores of people are being treated in hospitals and more than 45 people have died because of complications related to the flu.

Government-sponsored vaccine trials have started in the southern city of Adelaide. An effective vaccine is likely to be available in October. However, Australian health authorities expect a sharp rise in the number of swine flu infections in August, toward the end of winter in the southern hemisphere.