By Nicole Hegarty.
A Sunshine Coast Indigenous midwife is calling for a more realistic target to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infant mortality.
In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children aged five and under by 2018.
North Coast Aboriginal Corporation for Community Health (NCACCH) registered nurse and midwife Sharlene Terry says reaching the target requires time and commitment.
“How can you change what’s been happening for a long, long time in just ten years?” Ms Terry says.
“Even within the next five years I’d like to see the mortality rate a lot less than what it is now.”
Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service executive director of clinical services Kerrie Hayes says the COAG commitment is reflected in Queensland Health’s 10-year My Health, Queensland’s future: Advancing Health 2026 strategy.
“Progress towards closing the health gap is [also] monitored and reported on an annual basis,” Ms Hayes says.
While infant deaths have decreased over the past decade, recent statistics reveal Indigenous people remain at least twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to die as an infant (under the age of one).
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows there were six non-Indigenous infant deaths per 100,000 people in Queensland in 2006.
In the same year there were 22 Indigenous infant deaths per 100,000.
The most recent statistics, from 2015, highlight that the number of infant deaths in Queensland has decreased for both populations per 100,000 people (five and 19 respectively) but the difference between the two is larger.
Ms Terry says while more information is available to Indigenous people than in the past, there is still a lot more for non-Indigenous people.
“Maybe it’s accessibility to a lot of different programs and a lot of information or maybe the monetary [aspect],” she says.
“The non-Indigenous would be able to buy better food or have access to better services.
“A healthy lifestyle will definitely improve the outcomes of the babies, it’ll help the community.”
Australian figures tell a similar story with six non-Indigenous infant deaths per 100,000 in 2006 compared to 20 Indigenous infant deaths per 100,000.
Figures from 2015 reveal there were four non-Indigenous deaths and 15 Indigenous deaths per 100,000 people.
Despite decreases in infant mortality across Australia and Queensland, non-Indigenous deaths decreased almost 10 per cent more than Indigenous infant deaths.
Non-Indigenous infant deaths in Queensland decreased 24 per cent between 2006 and 2015 while there was a 16 per cent fall in Indigenous infant deaths.
There was a 33 per cent decrease in non-Indigenous deaths over the decade in Australia and a 24 per cent decrease in Indigenous infant deaths.
Ms Hayes says the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous infants is of significant concern across health jurisdictions and governments.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are at higher risk of giving birth to babies of low birthweight and have greater exposure to other risk factors such as anaemia, poor nutrition, diabetes and smoking,” she says.
“Low birthweight babies (newborns weighing less than 2500 grams) are at a greater risk of dying in their first year of life, experiencing ill-health during childhood and developing chronic disease in adulthood.
“There are a number of risk factors for low birthweight including maternal smoking, socio-economic disadvantage, obesity, inadequate nutrition, excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy and poor antenatal care.”
The news isn’t all negative, however, with no actual or percentage increase over the decade at either a state or national level.
Ms Terry says the availability of more specific courses such as the NCACCH Mums and bubs program is behind the change.
She says the program grants expectant mothers access to a registered midwife and provides support for the family until the baby is one year old.
“We are trying to increase the baby’s birth weight because statistically a lot of indigenous babies have got a lower birth weight than non-Indigenous,” she says.
Ms Terry says the program is a definite success.
“I can definitely see that the babies’ birth weights have increased,” she says.
“One girl was 14 when she had her first baby, so she was on the Mums and Bubs Program nine years ago, now she’s having her second baby.”
Ms Hayes is also witnessing change with the rate of low birthweight Indigenous infants dropping below 10 per cent for the first time in a decade.
Despite progress she says there is still a significant gap in antenatal attendance which is fundamental in identifying and managing birth outcomes.