Closing the Gap 2013: three good news stories

With the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap report published in February this year, here are three ways Menzies is helping to improve the lifespan and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

We’ve discovered that smoking rates are down

“Only a few years ago when we set up the Tobacco Control Research Program at Menzies, few were optimistic,” says Associate Professor David Thomas.

“Many said that it was too hard and nothing had worked.”

But the facts don’t call for doom and gloom, he says.

Menzies research has shown that smoking prevalence has declined by about 0.5 per cent every year among Indigenous men in both remote and non-remote Australia, as well as among Indigenous women in non-remote Australia.

Smoking prevalence increased and has now plateaued among Aboriginal women in remote Australia.

“We have shown that from 2002 to 2008 increasing numbers of Aboriginal people have successfully quit,” Thomas says.

“And there are encouraging signs that less Aboriginal boys and girls are now starting to smoke.”

“I think we can be really optimistic. We are riding a wave of change which is pushing down Aboriginal smoking and the harms it causes Aboriginal families and communities.

“And now we have dramatically increased resources to do much more and assist the passage of even faster improvements.”

We’re helping nutritionists improve support to the outback

  "Traditionally, Indigenous Australians were physically lean and didn’t gain weight with age,” says Dr Julie Brimblecombe.

For instance, 30 years ago, a small family group of Aboriginal people living a traditionally oriented lifestyle in north-east Arnhem Land were extremely slim and showed no risk of type 2 diabetes or heart disease.”

Twenty years on this picture has shifted dramatically.

As Brimblecombe explains: “After tobacco, obesity and being overweight contributes most heavily to the disease burden affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.”

Yet in the domain of nutrition, gains are being made to help turn the picture around.

Menzies, for one, has a number of innovative initiatives in orbit – including community-run ‘shelf talker’ systems in remote stores to help guide shoppers to healthy foods; and trials to test the effect of reduced pricing on fruit and vegetables.

Further, its Keeping Track of Healthy Foods tool (RIST tool) has enjoyed steady uptake among nutritionists working in Indigenous health.

The tool issues real-time information on spending patterns, in addition to feedback on how the food supply is tracking. It generates reports on sales of key foods in remote stores and offers nutritional analysis of food sales, thus identifying the main sources of ‘nutrients of concern’: mainly sugar, saturated fat and salt.

Though initially designed to assist store managers, the resource has reputedly enhanced the capacity of public health nutritionists, and dietitians to deliver tailored advice that improves food supply and diet. It’s a resource embraced by store committees and other members of remote communities, too.

Menzies’ nutrition team aims to convert the tool into a web-based application to further expand the resource’s benefit, utility and reach.

“Aboriginal people living in remote communities are among Australia’s poorest. Yet they pay much more for food, and have limited availability to a healthy diet. Innovative strategies are needed to help alter this imbalance,” says Brimblecombe.

Training Indigenous nutrition researchers

Iron deficiency, or anaemia, makes it difficult for the body to carry oxygen to all parts of the body, leaving sufferers feeling tired, pale, and in some instances, breathless.
To stem the high rates of this condition among infants and to help grow our Indigenous health workforce, Menzies is training community-based workers from Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australian in infant nutrition and the preparation of healthy foods as part of the Fred Hollows Foundation Early Childhood Nutrition and Anaemia Prevention ‘Sprinkles’ program.
Workers from the ‘Sprinkles’ program regularly visit families with vitamin and mineral supplements containing the recommended daily intakes (RDIs) for iron, zinc, iodine and folic acid.
The visitors also provide educational support about nutrition and the preparation of healthy foods.
“The model for the program was unique in that the community based workers were trained to deliver both the supplements and the supporting education, and that’s excellent for building capacity within communities,” says Senior.
“As well as giving Indigenous infants a better nutritional start to life and building community and maternal education, the program is offering local women real employment and training opportunities by teaching them how to run and evaluate their own programs.
With many Indigenous infants experiencing major nutrient deficiencies, the program is critical to helping to prevent health problems later in life.
As Senior says: “Working in close partnership with Fred Hollows ensured the program had a strong level of buy in from the community workers as well as strengthening our ties in the communities.”