The big issue in this year’s Federal election could well be the sickly condition of Australia's public health system.
While patients with sufficient funds or insurance can access medical advice virtually at will, with the ensuing financial bonanza attracting medicos into lucrative private practice, at the other end of the social spectrum, public hospital patients may be on waiting lists for years, perhaps never seen.
Thirty years ago the legendary Fred Hollows found more cases of trachoma (a preventable cause of blindness) in outback Queensland than in Bangladesh, although it was eliminated from Australia’s non-Indigenous population in the 1930s.
The Hollows Foundation is now back in action because "Australia stands isolated as the only developed country in the world where trachoma is still a major public health problem", Murray McLaughlin reported on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on 10 October.
Ophthalmologist Hugh Taylor of Melbourne’s Centre for Eye Research heads a trachoma screening program in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. "It's shocking to find nothing has changed in the last 30 years in these communities", he told McLaughlin. More than 20 per cent of children up to 14 years have symptoms of the infection, caused by living conditions.
Katrina Roper added, "It is a reflection on their poverty, their lack of access to water, lack of basic hygiene, remoteness and infrastructure".
The comprehensive research-based report Social Determinants of Indigenous Health shows Indigenous patients in urban areas often have similar pathology. The common denominator is poverty, not only in the family but also in the wider economic infrastructure, with spiritual and psychological dimensions.
Because of sickness and accidents the average Australian Indigenous life-span is 17 years less than that of the whole population, while compared with the non-Indigenous population it is probably 20 years shorter.
It remains to be seen if Prime Minister John Howard’s new-found love of Indigenous folk during the election period will extend beyond fine sentiments to serious large-scale investment in housing, health, education, training and employment.
Federal Treasurer Peter Costello announced on 18 September "now with a stronger economy we can begin to improve the health of the nation". Begin? After 11 years in office? The Australian Medical Association called for some $460 million extra financial resources for Indigenous health in the past two Federal Budgets but was ignored.
There is a great need for imaginative solutions to overcome the tyranny of distance to make the lives of patients and medical staff in remote locations more viable. More doctors graduating from universities for a start. Then more investment in light planes, helicopters and other vehicles loaded with modern equipment and supplies to ferry staff and sick patients quickly to and from regional centres.
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