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Close the Gap Parliamentary Friendship Group – an observation

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The AMA joined the inaugural meeting of the Close the Gap Parliamentary Friendship Group, held on March 30 at Parliament House.

Convened by Greens Senator Rachel Siewart, ALP Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, and Liberal MP Lucy Wicks, the meeting aimed to raise awareness among key decision makers about the scourge of Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Worldwide, RHD affects more than 30 million people, with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having among the highest rates of this debilitating disease.

The fact that RHD is occurring in Australia, and the fact that we need to reinforce to our political leaders that they need to do something about it, is symptomatic of consecutive government failures to listen and act. RHD is a disease of poverty and it should not be seen in Australia.

Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly children, continue to suffer from RHD every day.  Penny, a young patient advocate from Oenpelli in Arnhem Land, is one of those children. Penny was diagnosed with RHD at around ten years of age, and many of her family members are living with RHD as well – her mother, uncle, aunty, and cousin. While it is unacceptable that RHD is even occurring in Australia, it is intolerable that it is affecting whole families.

RHD can be usually resolved if it is detected early, but people are being treated for the condition when it is too late. Dr Bo Remenyi, a paediatric cardiologist in the Northern Territory described how she sees a new case of RHD being diagnosed among Indigenous children every second day – this is about 150 new cases per year.

RHD is no longer a public health problem in Australia.  This issue was solved for the majority of Australians about 50 or 60 years ago with the introduction of penicillin and better living conditions. RHD is now a political problem.

In the words of Dr Remenyi: “We have a surgical solution for a political problem. Australia needs a paradigm shift – we need to move away from surgical solutions.” We need to invest in prevention, and double the number of doctors and health workers on the ground – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have the smallest health workforce in Australia. This is highly disproportionate, particularly when the health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are two to three times higher than their non-Indigenous peers.

Part of the solution to addressing RHD is educating members of the community about skin infections, and how they can lead to Acute Rheumatic Fever, and then to RHD if they are not quickly treated. But most of all, there needs to be a strong will to put RHD in the history books.

The community, health professionals, people working laboratories, public servants and most of all, governments, are all responsible for helping to make this a reality. Our political leaders need to show leadership and take action to work with health professionals and communities to rid Australia of RHD.

Alyce Merritt 
Indigenous Policy Adviser AMA