The number of malnourished Australian aboriginal children has risen sharply. At Royal Darwin Hospital, statistics show a 25 percent increase in children diagnosed with malnutrition and diarrhea in the past three years. Health professionals say the solution must go beyond health services and address the deeper problems plaguing indigenous communities.
A dozen aboriginal children sit with their mothers on the floor of a health clinic at the Royal Darwin Hospital in Australia's rugged north. They are between two and four years old, are underweight and very small for their age. They are being treated for malnutrition.
Dr. Paul Bauert, from the Australian Medical Association, says childhood malnutrition here has reached crisis proportions.
"They look skinny and they have infections. We see rates of pus coming from ears up to some 60-70 percent of children in some communities," he said. "The World Health Organization recognizes a public health crisis if you have pus coming from ears in greater than four percent of the population. It's an absolute disgrace."
Sandra Nelson is an indigenous health worker in Darwin. She explains how ear infections, to name just one affliction related to malnutrition, can interfere with achievement in school and later life.
"[If] children are fed properly, immunized properly, and the chances are they're not going to have sore ears and then, we maybe drop the bad behavior," she said. "We have so many children being disruptive in the classrooms because they can't hear. It distresses the child, the child stops going to school, they can't get a job, they go into poverty and it's just that big vicious cycle."
Dr. David Brewster is the head of pediatrics at Royal Darwin Hospital. He says many of his young patients suffer from acute wasting and chronic stunting. Childhood malnutrition plagues people into adulthood, he says, increasing the risk of life-threatening health conditions.
"It's a risk factor when you get to adulthood for chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and diabetes," he said. "If you're malnourished as a child and particularly then go to a Western diet with high carbohydrates and high cholesterol, you are much more at risk."
Malnutrition has long been married to poverty, but the rapid escalation of childhood malnutrition among Aborigines is alarming authorities for two reasons: What it means for the children and what it says about the adults.
Malnutrition among aboriginal children is partly due to deep-rooted social problems embedded in the adult community, says Marion Scrymgour, a junior minister in the Labor government. She was the first indigenous woman ever elected to the Northern Territory Parliament.
She says alcohol, drug abuse and gambling play a role.
"A lot of the mothers get access to welfare payments," she said. "Most of those family allowance payments go towards gambling and just a small percentage of that is earmarked for food. If the father's got a severe substance abuse problem, a lot of the money goes on that. Children are missing out on both sides of the spectrum."
The Northern Territory government is sending 25 additional medical teams to remote aboriginal settlements this year. With more healthcare workers helping families understand the roots of malnutrition, the authorities believe they can make a significant difference.