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Gap closing on Indigenous birthweight as maternal health improves

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The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies born with a low birthweight has declined significantly, in a sign that intensive efforts to boost Indigenous maternal health are succeeding.

Figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that the low birthweight rate among babies of Indigenous mothers dropped by almost one tenth (9 per cent) between 2000 and 2011, narrowing in the gap for low birthweight babies between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Australia.

Nonetheless, Indigenous mothers are still twice as likely as non-Indigenous mothers to have babies of low birthweight (12.6 per cent and 6 per cent respectively).

AIHW spokesman Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman said low birthweight was associated with a range of adverse health outcomes, including newborn death and serious illness and the development of chronic diseases later in life.

Dr Al-Yaman said the drop in the low birthweight rate for Indigenous women had led to a significant narrowing of the gap in the low birthweight rate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers over the decade.

That narrowing contributes to the progress being made in the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments’ Closing the Gap strategy to address the disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians in the areas of life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott reported to Parliament that the target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track to be met. He said, however, that there had been almost no progress in closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, which still sits at about a decade.

The Birthweight of babies born to Indigenous mothers report showed that 11,729 Indigenous mothers gave birth to 11,895 babies in 2011, representing 4 per cent of all babies born in that year.

Nearly all (99 per cent) of births to Indigenous mothers in 2011 were live births, the same proportion as for births to non-Indigenous women.

In 2011, 12. 6 per cent of babies born to Indigenous mothers were of low birthweight (less than 2,500 grams), while 86 per cent were of normal birthweight (between 2,500 grams and 4,499 grams) and 1.4 per cent were of high birthweight (4,500 grams or more).

Dr Al-Yarman said a range of factors were associated with birthweight, including maternal smoking during pregnancy, antenatal care and pre-term births.

“Half of all Indigenous mothers who gave birth in 2011 reported smoking during pregnancy, compared with 12 per cent of non-Indigenous mothers,” he said.

“The smoking rate among Indigenous mothers fell from 54 per cent in 2005 to 50 per cent in 2011, with a greater fall in the rate among non-Indigenous mothers, highlighting considerable scope for further improvements.”

The report also showed that the rate of Indigenous babies being born prematurely fell over the decade.

“In 2011, 12.5 per cent of liveborn babies of Indigenous mothers were born pre-term, compared with 7.5 per cent of babies born to non-Indigenous mothers, but the gap between the two had narrowed over the decade,” Dr Al-Yaman said.

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler, who visited a number of Indigenous communities and Aboriginal health services in the Northern Territory last week, said the success in reducing the incidence of low birthweight among Indigenous babies was an encouraging development that showed, with appropriate resources and commitment, governments and communities could achieve real improvements in Aboriginal health.

A/Professor Owler said the result underlined the importance of the nation’s governments “keeping the pedal to the metal” and to continue working together in a consistent and coordinated way to improve Indigenous health.

Debra Vermeer