NACCHO Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health News: Closing the gap in preterm birth rates

feature tile ATSI mum looking down on premature twin babies on her chest; text: preterm birth prevention program hopes to provide a roadmap for improved outcomes

The image in the feature tile is from an article GLU test expands to benefit Aboriginal mothers published on the Women & Infants Research Foundation website.

The NACCHO Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health News is a platform we use to showcase the important work being done in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health focusing on the work of NACCHO, NACCHO members and NACCHO affiliates.

We also share a curated selection of news stories that are of likely interest to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector, broadly. The content included in these new stories are not necessarily NACCHO endorsed.

Closing the gap in preterm birth rates

Rates of early birth continue to disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women and their newborns. Recent Closing the Gap data showed that the official target for healthy birthweights for babies has gone from being “on track” to “not on track”. Now, an innovative preterm birth prevention program led out of the NT is taking aim at this unacceptable disparity and the hope is that it will provide “a roadmap for improved outcomes” for all First Nations women and their children. Dr Kiarna Brown, Jess Murray and Marisa Smiler-Cairns are a team based in Garramilla (Darwin), on Larrakia Country, that make up the Top End chapter of the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance.

They note that preterm birth remains the leading cause of death in children up to five years of age. “The national average rate of preterm birth in Australia has remained relatively constant over the last 10 years (between 8.1 and 8.7%). Many of these babies lose their fight for life,” the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance noted in a statement. “In 2018, there were twice as many preterm live born babies born to First Nations mothers (17%) than to non-Aboriginal mothers (8%).” The biggest discrepancy is in the extremely preterm gestational age. First Nations women in the NT are four times more likely to lose a baby between 20 and 23 weeks gestational age: before the baby even gets a chance to survive.

Pregnancy can be a particularly vulnerable time for First Nations women, especially for those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and cardiac conditions like Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD). Dr Kiarna Brown said there have been some key improvements in outcomes for First Nations women over the past decade. There has been a notable increase in the proportion of First Nations mothers attending an antenatal visit in the first trimester (from 49% in 2012 to 70% in 2020).”

To view the National Indigenous News article The First Nations health experts working to give Indigenous babies the best possible start in life in full click here.

Top End Alliance: Jessica Murray, Marisa Smiler-Cairns, and Dr Kiarna Brown

Top End Alliance: Jessica Murray, Marisa Smiler-Cairns, and Dr Kiarna Brown. Image source: National Indigenous Times.

Karlie one of growing number of Aboriginal doctors

For most of Karlie James’s life, studying medicine was a “pipedream”. Then she grew up, started working full time and had kids of her own, and she felt that dream slipping away. “Part of the reason why I wanted to become a doctor when I was little was that my passion was science and learning and wanting to help people,” she said. Then, around the time the Gunaikurnai, Yorta Yorta and Kuku Djungan woman turned 30 and had her third son, she reached a turning point. Growing up between Darwin and Katherine in the NT, she realised becoming a doctor was something she had to do.

“It became more apparent as I got older in the workforce, how much of an impact it would [have] to create more Indigenous doctors, especially in the community,” she said. “And that was one of my driving motivators to pursue medicine.” Having graduated from the Flinders University NT medicine program late last year, Dr James is now among the 0.5% of doctors in Australia who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. But that figure, which is recorded each year by the Australian Health Practitioners Agency (AHPRA), is slowly shifting and is up from 0.3% in 2016.

Also shifting is the understanding that in order to close the gap in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Australia needs more First Nations doctors.

To view the ABC News article Karlie James is among the growing number of First Nations doctors working to tackle the health care gap in full click here.

Dr Karlie James walking with her 4 sons

Dr James completed her degree while caring for her four sons, as well as her nephews and nieces. Photo: Dane Hirst, ABC News.

Healing walk to honour those lost to suicide

This week, for the very first time, a group of First Nations and non-Indigenous people will take a walk along the Murrumbidgee River in memory of loved ones they have lost to suicide. The walk has been called Murra Yarra, which means ‘Speak Out, Speak Loud’ in Wiradjuri language. Organiser Jasmine Williams hopes it gives families with the chance to think of the good memories with those who have passed away.

“It’s the first time anything like this has ever been done in this community,” the Wiradjuri and Wolgalu woman said. “It’s an opportunity to have a positive spin on our grief and be able to really focus on the goodness, and the good memories of their lives instead of focusing on the way they passed.” Ms Williams is hosting Murra Yarra through the youth suicide prevention community action group Yamandhu Marang (‘Are You Well’), after Wiradjuri Elder Uncle Hewitt Whyman came to her with the idea. He said he had a vision of people coming together in their grief, and encouraged everyone experiencing similar losses to share with others in their sorrow.

When they heard about the walk Riverina Medical and Dental Aboriginal Corporation got involved and decided to sponsor the event. Practice manage Jane Kearnes said they’ve helped organise a barbecue at the end of the walk at the Wiradjuri Reserve, as well as bucket hats and water stations along the track. “I applaud Jasmine and the other committees for getting this up and running,” she said. “Something like this might encourage others to speak out more and not be silent.” According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Indigenous suicide were more than double that of non-Indigenous suicides in 2021.

For more information on the walk you can access the Yamandhu Marang Facebook page here.

Jasmine Williams, sitting on rock under tree on bank of river

Murra Yarra organiser Jasmine Williams says the healing walk is a chance for those grieving to remember their loved ones. Photo: Madeline Begley. Image source: The Daily Advertiser.

Healthy food in remote NT a priority

The NT government has a long way to go in their efforts to address obesity and create healthier food environments, according to the latest scorecard of government performance on food policy. The Food Policy Index, first developed and implemented in 2017, benchmarks Australian governments on their implementation of globally recommended policies to improve population diets. Professor Gary Sacks from Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation who compiled the most recent report said greater policy action was required by the NT government.

“Supporting efforts to establish a licensing and accreditation scheme for healthy food retail in remote Indigenous communities needs to be one of the top priorities for the NT government.” Professor Sacks said a key recommendation from the 2020 Parliamentary Inquiry into Food Pricing and Food Security in Remote Indigenous Communities was the need for a licensing and inspection scheme for all remote stores. “The Healthy Stores 2020 study showed that restrictions on price promotion and product placement of unhealthy foods and drinks resulted in 1.8 tonnes less sugar being sold from 10 stores over 12 weeks while not impacting store profits,” Professor Sacks said.

“If this was extrapolated out across all remote stores over a year, the reduction could be as much as 90 tonnes a year, which equates to the weight of 60 medium sized family cars. Modelling suggests that this reduction in sugar could result in a 10% risk reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease.”

To view the Deakin University media release Healthy food retail in remote NT communities identified as top priority click here and the Joint Policy Statement of The Coalition for Healthy Remote Stores on the NT Government’s Community Stores Licensing program here.

inside Peppimenarti grocery store, NT

Peppimenarti store, NT. Image source: C&I Media.

AMA urges action to save patients on PBS medicines

The AMA has urged all members of the Federal Parliament to support the AMA’s campaign to bring down out-of-pocket costs of medicines for patients and relieve cost of living pressures. It says implementation of a five-year-old recommendation of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) would save patients up to $180 a year on selected PBS medicines.

AMA President Professor Steve Robson has written to all MPs and Senators, calling on their support for the Federal Government to immediately implement a recommendation from the independent PBAC to increase the maximum dispensed quantities of selected PBS items from one month’s supply to two months’ supply per dispensing. This would also allow up to 12 months’ supply in total from a single script, saving patients an extra trip to their doctor.

Professor Robson said increasing out-of-pocket costs of medicines was a key reason many Australians delayed or failed to fill prescriptions. He said although the Government’s recent policy to lower co-payments for patients to $30 was a good move, many patients still faced significant costs and more needed to be done to lower PBS medicine costs for patients. “Pensioners and concession card holders would be among those to benefit, recognising the recent reduction in the PBS co-payment to $30 did not apply to them. It would free-up GP consultations with the possibility for GPs to write what is effectively a 12-month prescription for these particular medications. This is time GPs could spend with other patients who, we know, can benefit from the preventative health care GPs provide.”

To view the AMA’s media release AMA urges immediate action to save patients on PBS medicines in full click here.

AMA President Professor Steve Robson

AMA President Professor Steve Robson. Image source: The Age.

Breakthrough partnership to benefit remote communities

A breakthrough partnership between Hoops 4 Health and the Center for Healing and Justice through Sport will see some of the NT’s most remote communities benefit from access to trauma-informed and culturally-informed and healing-centred training. Founder of Hoops4Health, Timmy Duggan OAM, is the man behind the vision to re-empower young people and communities to improved their quality of life.

Mr Duggan has maternal ties with Tennant Creek mob from Warramungu and paternal ties to the Nykinya people of the Kimberley, and has been working with communities across the NT for two decades. He said the move to combine First Nations-led healing with trauma-informed care emerged through Hoops 4 Health staff receiving training under Dr Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Network model.

“We have partnered with The Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport (CHJS) who offers training to help folks understand the impact of overwhelming stress, or trauma, on young people and equips them with skills to take action to support these young people,” Mr Duggan said. “This partnership just really solidifies that sometimes you’ve got to bring in an expert you know, we’ve got the First Nations knowledge. Blend that with the science around the neuroscience to address trauma in our communities and the places we work and we think we’ve got something pretty unique.”

To view the National Indigenous Times article Hoops 4 Health and The Center for Healing and Justice through Sport form partnership in full click here.

basketball star Nate Jawai with a young rising star shooting for goal

Basketball star Nate Jawai with a young rising star. Image source: National Indigenous Times.

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