Rhonda-Lee Lardner, 8, is learning about hygiene, traditional and bush medicine as part of the Dhalayi doctor program at St Joseph’s Primary School in Kempsey. Photos by: Peter Rae
These ambassadors for better health are nagging parents and friends to keep themselves and their homes clean, smoke outside, buy healthier food, blow their noses properly, urging them to get medical help and helping them navigate the local hospital and health system
More than 500 Indigenous and non-Indigenous boys and girls like Wilson are learning hygiene, first aid and bush medicine as part of a Young Doctor program to bridge the gap in some of the poorest communities across Australia.
These ambassadors for better health are nagging parents and friends to keep themselves and their homes clean, smoke outside, buy healthier food, blow their noses properly, urging them to get medical help and helping them navigate the local hospital and health system.
Research had shown that simple techniques, such as hand washing and proper nose blowing which can prevent infections that cause hearing loss and blindness, were the most effective way to improve child health in remote Indigenous and poor communities. Yet many Aboriginal families were afraid of doctors and hospitals, and government programs had made little impact.
Mr Palmer said the program was inspired by traditional Aboriginal medicine, where holistic healers would train children as young as four. It is also similar to programs in Third-World countries.
In Bangladesh, for instance, 1.2 million “little doctors” are trying to eradicate the intestinal worms that have infected 80 per cent of children.
Aboriginal elders complained that government programs were imposed from above, usually without consultation. Malpa, which receives no government funding, only runs its program where it has been invited and adapts each course to suit local needs. At the elders’ insistence, it is offered to non-Indigenous children too.
When head lice invaded tiny Bellbrook Public School in New England, the school’s “young doctors” researched a natural and affordable treatment – tea tree and olive oil – which they packaged and distributed free to others. The children then tackled conjunctivitis, which can lead to blindness if untreated.
In Kempsey, 14 projects have been held at 10 schools since 2013.
At St Joseph’s, the children learned about medication, including dosages (a small pill isn’t always weaker), delivery (pills versus lotions), the dangers of taking other people’s medication, and the importance of reading the instructions and knowing what a drug contains. It was a low-key way to remind children of the dangers of illegal drugs such as ice that are sweeping the town.
At South Kempsey Public School, the program emphasised environmental health. The streets surrounding the school are a patchwork of vacant lots and burnt out houses that have been destroyed by fires lit when homes are vacated. One house had 13 dirty mattresses stored beneath it. Wheelie bin fires were common.
Following last year’s course, the number of fires has dropped to a record low, and the principal said he wants to run another course as soon as possible.
Parents, pupils and teachers said the children loved the course, contributing to a near 100 per cent school attendance.
After singing and blowing their noses – using the block and blow method so they can hear better – the children recite the pledge at every class.
“I will be listening (with healthy ears), I will be learning (with a healthy mind), and … I will be caring and sharing to me and my mob because I am a Dhalayi doctor.”
When children at Stuarts Point Public School north of Kempsey graduated this week, they loved the food – each child has to at least try new foods (often fruit and vegetables) – and the bush medicine.
“I learned how you can use cobwebs (to stop bleeding) for cuts, but make sure there are no spiders. You don’t want to get bitten,” said Jordan, who graduated this week.
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