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‘Young doctors’ promote Indigenous health

Indigenous children are being trained to promote better health and nutrition.

Young Indigenous doctors are promoting better health and nutrition.

Children are being trained to promote better health and hygiene.

By Emma Halgren

An army of Indigenous children is working to build healthier and stronger communities using simple health and hygiene measures that blend traditional Aboriginal practices and contemporary western approaches to medicine and health.

The Young Doctors project, an initiative of the non-profit organisation Malpa, operates in schools, training young people to be health ambassadors among their peers, families and communities. Local elders, respected community members and health workers work together to teach the young people about hygiene, health literacy, nutrition, leadership and environmental health. In each area the local language is used.

The Revd David Peake OAM, priest at the parish of Broadmeadows/Dallas in Melbourne and a director of Malpa, said that simple practices like hand washing, proper nose-blowing and keeping the house clean could prevent some of the infections that lead to longer term chronic health problems.

For example, otitis media, or middle ear infection, can lead to glue ear, which causes temporary deafness. The rate of chronic middle ear infection among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is among the highest in the world, with up to 73 per cent of children being diagnosed with it by the age of twelve months.

“In some communities up to 80 per cent of children are functionally deaf due to otitis media,” said Revd Peake. “If you’re functionally deaf when you’re ten or 11 you start to disengage from learning because you can’t hear, and if you can’t hear you’re going to drop out of school and you’re never going to work. The trajectory is long term unemployment, social dislocation, challenging behaviours, and potentially imprisonment. It’s not rocket science really to say that if you open the ears of kids, then their long term health journey is significantly improved.”

In the case of trachoma, which has been eliminated in most of the developed world but affects some 25 per cent of children in the Northern Territory, “very simple interventions like handwashing and facewashing can make a difference, but it’s not something kids are [normally] taught early on,” said Revd Peake.

He said the project was having a positive impact beyond improved health.

“Attendance is up to 100 per cent in most schools where we’re working — it’s having an impact not just with kids from the program but across the school community. Other people are seeing the impact of participating in the life of the school more completely and holistically; Indigenous mums and dads and grandparents and aunties are becoming more involved in the life of the school community, which is enhancing kids’ attendance.

“It’s the connection between the old and the new that’s really important, and that we do use local ngangkari (traditional healers) who tell stories that have been absolutely captivating for the kids,” he said.

“We believe that we’re supporting and encouraging shared knowledge, and it has a profound impact on school communities when that happens.”

Malpa CEO Don Palmer, a documentary maker and former Anglican priest, set up Young Doctors in 2012. The idea of children being “doctors” is deeply embedded in Australian Indigenous culture, and similar models have also been used effectively in developing countries: in Bangladesh, 1.2 million children have been trained as young doctors and are working to eradicate intestinal worms. In Aceh, the promotion of basic hygiene by young doctors has been credited with averting an outbreak of cholera after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

In 2015, Malpa will work with 26 communities in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland to train more than 400 Young Doctors.

Malpa is entirely funded by private donations.

For more information, visit www.malpa.org.au