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Australian Aborigines Health on Par with Third World Countries - 2004-04-01

An influential aid organization in Australia reports that the health of many of the country's indigenous people is worse than that of people in the developing world. The Fred Hollows Foundation is demanding an emergency summit to address the problem. The foundation says statistics show that aboriginal health is worse than the health of people in such poor countries as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sudan.

Australia's aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in the country. Poverty, drug addiction and unemployment have left many communities in ruins. An aboriginal man can expect to die 20 years younger than a white Australian. Figures released by the Royal Darwin Hospital in 2002 showed a sharp increase in the number of aboriginal children diagnosed with malnutrition and diarrhea.

The reasons are thought to be social rather than a lack of health care in remote communities. Poor housing, hygiene, a lack of employment and education along with a reliance on convenience food combine to cause long-term health problems for young aborigines.

Indigenous people are more likely to die younger from preventable conditions than the wider population. Heart attacks, strokes and diabetes are among the main killers. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years trying to reverse the inequalities. Olga Havnen from the Fred Hollows foundation says in many areas such assistance has made little difference. "If you have a look at the rates of malnutrition and failure to thrive amongst indigenous kids, you know, we're on par with countries like Eritrea, Nepal, the Sudan, Sierra Leone," she says. "The rates of, you know, low birth-weight babies, that hasn't improved in this country over the last 40 years."

She points out that babies with low birth weights can suffer health problems throughout their lives. Fred Hollows was a doctor from New Zealand. In the late 1960's he began to examine aborigines in Australia's Northern Territory. He said the diseases he encountered were like something out of a medical history book, illnesses which had not been seen in Western society for generations.

More than three decades later, the aid organization he founded has claimed that indigenous health standards are still going backward. It is demanding that Australia's state and federal governments take more responsibility for the crisis. The national government has said spending on indigenous health is now at record levels and improvements are being achieved. For example, death rates among aborigines from infectious and parasitic diseases have fallen dramatically. There are approximately half a million Australian aborigines, making up just over two percent of the population.