Aboriginal children healthier than ever but generations behind peers
Aboriginal children born today have a better start in life than ever before, the latest Chief Health Officer’s report shows.
But health services alone will not be enough to bridge the yawning gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, the report’s authors say.
The rate of teenage pregnancies has almost halved in two decades from 23 per cent to 13 per cent since 1994, according to the report Aboriginal Kids – a healthy start to life.
Pregnancy smoking rates had fallen from a peak of 61 per cent in 1996 to 41 per cent in 2016.
But the rates of teenage mothers and pregnant smokers was six times higher among Aboriginal women than their non-Aboriginal counterparts and were strongly linked to disadvantage, the report showed.
The Aboriginal infant mortality rate fell from 7.2 to 4.6 per 1000 live births between 2005 and 2016. The percentage of babies with low birth weight has not budged from roughly 12 per cent since 2012.
The proportion of Aboriginal babies hospitalised with acute gastroenteritis dropped by a third in the past decade, but the most disadvantaged babies were 50 times more likely to be hospitalised with the infection than the least disadvantaged.
Aboriginal childhood vaccination rates continue to surpass rates among non-Indigenous children (97 per cent versus 94 per cent), according to the report released ahead of the Aboriginal Health Summit on Sydney on Friday.
The percentage of Aboriginal children who’d had a health assessment had almost tripled since 2010-2011.
But more than one in three Aboriginal children were still developmentally vulnerable in 2015.
The most socially disadvantaged Aboriginal children were 100 times more likely to be hospitalised for middle ear infection procedures than the least disadvantaged children.
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said she was very pleased to see improvements, “but are they quick enough? No.”
Aboriginal children would continue to have poorer health than their non-Aboriginal peers until the social determinants of health were addressed, including access to services, education, housing and employment, Dr Chant said.
The report clearly showed “disadvantage drives inequality”, Dr Chant said.
“If we can improve retention in school, improve preschool attendance and employment … these are going to be key drivers [of improvements in health],” Dr Chant said.
Report co-author Stephen Blunden, the acting chief executive of the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, said the progress in Aboriginal children’s health was a good example of what a difference we can make when health services worked in partnership with Aboriginal communities.
“There’s still work to be done in other areas of Aboriginal health but we should not lose sight of the major achievements we’ve reached in recent years because they’re improving the lives of the next generation of our community – our children,” Mr Blunden said.
Dr Chant said health services had a responsibility to ensure they did not discriminate against Aboriginal people, and that policies and procedures did not inadvertently compromise their willingness to engage with services.
“I think it challenges us to continue to look at innovative ways to work in partnership to address inequalities,” she said.
A key initiative had been employing Aboriginal Health Workers in public health units.
Training and employing Aboriginal doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff also helped foster culturally safe spaces for aboriginal patients, Dr Chant said.
Dr Chant said NSW Health would have a strong focus on reducing smoking in pregnancy rates by addressing the high smoking rates among Aboriginal communities overall.
“It’s not all about the woman”, Dr Chant stressed.