Action needed to give Indigenous children a healthier start to life

10/12/2013

AMA Indigenous Health Report Card 2012-13

“The Healthy Early Years – Getting the Right Start in Life”

The AMA Indigenous Health Report Card 2012-13, The Healthy Early Years – Getting the Right Start in Life, was released today by Assistant Minister for Health, Senator the Hon Fiona Nash, at Parliament House in Canberra.

AMA President, Dr Steve Hambleton, said it is the right of every Australian child to have the best start in life but in Australia today not every child benefits from this right.

“In their early years, children need to be safe, have adequate opportunities for growth and development, and have access to adequate health, child development, and education services,” Dr Hambleton said.

“Many of our children are missing out, but none more so than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

“There have been some improvements in recent years with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children making a successful transition to healthy adult life, but there are still far too many who are being raised in community and family environments that are marked by severe early childhood adversity.

“This adversity in early life can affect educational and social functioning in later life, and can increase the risk of chronic illness.

“Without intervention, these problems can be transmitted from one generation to the next – and the cycle continues.

“Good nutrition, responsive care and psychosocial stimulation can have powerful protective benefits to improve longer-term health and wellbeing. 

“Strong culture and strong identity are also central to healthy early development.

“The costs to individuals, families, and society of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children failing to reach their developmental potential continue to be substantial.

“Robust and properly targeted and sustained investment in healthy early childhood development is one of the keys to breaking the cycle of ill health and premature death among Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

“We are seeing improvements through government commitment and cooperation on closing the gap initiatives, but much more action is needed

“It is crucial for the momentum to be sustained by renewing the COAG National Partnership Agreements on Indigenous Health and on Indigenous Early Childhood Development for another five years,” Dr Hambleton said.

The AMA makes several recommendations in the Report Card to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in their early years, including:

a national plan for expanded comprehensive maternal and child services that covers a range of activities including antenatal services, childhood health monitoring and screening, access to specialists, parenting education and life skills, and services that target risk factors such as smoking, substance use, nutrition, and mental health and wellbeing;

  • the extension of the Australian Nurse Family Partnership Program of home visiting to more centres;
  • support for families at risk with interventions to protect infants and young children from neglect, abuse and family violence;
  • efforts to reduce the incarceration of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders;
  • efforts to improve the access of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to the benefits of the economy, especially employment and entrepreneurship;
  • efforts to keep children at school;
  • building a strong sense of cultural identity and self-worth;
  • improving the living environment with better housing, clean water, sanitation facilities, and conditions that contribute to safe and healthy living; and better data, research and evaluation culturally appropriate measures of early childhood development and wellbeing.

The AMA Indigenous Health Report Card, The Healthy Early Years – Getting the Right Start in Life, is available at https://ama.com.au/2012-13-ama-indigenous-health-report-card-healthy-early-years-getting-right-start-life

Examples of good news stories in addressing early childhood adversity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can be found at https://ama.com.au/2013-ama-indigenous-health-report-card-good-news-stories

Background - some key factors impacting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing in the early years:

Pregnancy and Birth

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a higher birth rate compared with all women in Australia (2.6 babies compared to 1.9), and are more likely to have children at a younger age: 52 per cent of the Aboriginal women giving birth in 2010 were aged less than 25 years, and 20 per cent were less than 20 years, compared with 16 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively, for the broader community [AIHW, 2012];
  • Aboriginal women remain twice as likely to die in childbirth as non-Aboriginal mothers, and are significantly more likely to experience pregnancy complications and stressful life events and social problems during pregnancy, such as the death of a family member, housing problems, and family violence [Brown, 2011];
  • around half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander mothers who gave birth in 2010 smoked during pregnancy, almost four times the rate of other Australian mothers; and
  • while infant mortality continues to fall, low birth weight appears to be increasing.  

Infancy and early years

 

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are twice as likely to die before the age of five than other Australian children of that age group. However, the Closing the Gap target to halve this gap in mortality rates by 2018 will be reached if current trends continue;
  • between 2008 and 2010, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children less than five years of age were hospitalised at a rate 1.4 times greater than other children of the same age [AIHW 2013];
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children suffer from nutritional anaemia at 30 times the rate of other children [Bar-Zeev, et. al., 2013]; and
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children between 2 and 4 years of age are almost twice as likely to be overweight or obese compared with all Australian children in that age range [Webster et. al., 2013].

Family Life

  • More than 20 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families with children younger than 16 years have experienced seven or more life stress events in a year [Zubrick et al, 2006]. The greater the number of family life stress events experienced in the previous 12 months, the higher the risk of children having clinically significant social and emotional difficulties [FaHCSIA, 2013];
  • for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, risk factors such as: a close family member having been arrested, or in jail or having problems with the police, being cared for by someone other than their regular carers for more than a week; being scared by other people’s behaviour had the greatest impact on a child’s social and emotional difficulty scores; especially if these factors were sustained over a number of years [FaHCSIA  2013];
  • between 2006 and 2010, the injury death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children was three times higher than that for other children. In 2010–11, the rate of hospitalisation for injuries was almost 90 per cent higher for children from remote and very remote areas than for children in major cities. Overall, hospitalisation due to injury among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children was almost double that of other children, with the greatest disparity relating to assault [AIHW, 2012];
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost eight times as likely to be the subject of substantiated child abuse and neglect compared with other Australian children [AIHW 2012].

Early Childhood Education and Schooling

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable than other Australian children, and to require special assistance in making a successful transition into school learning;
  • the Closing the Gap target for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds living in remote communities to have access to 15 hours of early childhood education per week was achieved in 2013;
  • across the country, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children achieving the national minimum standards decreases as remoteness increases. For example, in 2012, only 20.3 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander year 5 students in very remote areas achieved national minimum standards in reading, compared with 76 per cent in metropolitan areas;
  • only modest progress has been made in achieving the Closing the Gap target to halve the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy assessment scores by 2018. 

 


10 December 2013

CONTACT:        John Flannery                     02 6270 5477 / 0419 494 761

                          Kirsty Waterford                02 6270 5464 / 0427 209 753