Indigenous health starts with parents: Wyatt

Federal Minister for Indigenous Health and Aged Care Ken Wyatt.

Childhood illnesses such as glue ear will be targeted by new Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt in a bid to improve the health of children through the education of their parents.

In a wide-ranging interview with the National Indigenous Times, Mr Wyatt said parents were central to the health of children.

He said if children got off to a healthy start in life, it laid the foundations for health in their adult lives too.

Mr Wyatt said conditions such as otitis media – the middle ear infection more commonly known as glue ear – remained a concern, as did the rate of low birthweights among Indigenous babies.

“We should celebrate our success with the higher rates of vaccination, but otitis media is an area that is still problematic because with otitis media you end up with glue ear and with glue ear you can’t hear people speak – you have conductive hearing loss and that impacts on knowledge or language acquisition and it also means that in some instances those kids are experiencing pain,” Mr Wyatt said.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done around otitis media.

“I want to see improvements in the reduction of illnesses that are problematic within our childhood cohort, but I believe if mothers are key to the foundation years and the males are supporting them … then we will see in the long term health attitudes shaped by parents who want to make sure their children live long, healthy lives.”

Mr Wyatt, a Noongar man and an expert in Indigenous health before he moved into politics, said he believed socio-economic factors and education played key roles in public health.

“When I worked with Professor Fiona Stanley at the WA Telethon Institute, there was a survey we undertook, the WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey, and the thing that stuck in my mind more than anything else was the education of our women,” Mr Wyatt said.

“What we found in that evidence was girls who left school in Year 10 tended to not modify their behaviour during pregnancy or when they had a child. All of our young women who graduated and went to Year 11 or 12 demonstrated better health behaviours during that pregnancy period and those who left Year 12 and graduated from Year 12 tended to be better informed about the choices they could make to reduce any harmful behaviours to their child in utero.

“That just firmed my own position that education is a significant way of impacting on those social determinants in the long term. I don’t mean just attending 10 years of school and you still can’t read and write, but people who take the opportunity of being successful in their educational journey and then get to a point where they make an informed decision themselves and look after those who are within their family.”

Mr Wyatt said the issue for Australian governments was how they formed partnerships with Indigenous communities to better tackle the areas that have been identified as gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

“I know when I have an illness and I talk to my GP, I take on a partnership role with my GP because she’ll prescribe what I need, but I also know what it is I have to do to ensure I get better,” he said.

“In that journey we talk frequently when I need to consult, but I end up on a pathway that ensures my health has improved.

“It’s the partnership that is as simple as you and your doctor that has to apply to government programs and services. We have to work with our communities to get solutions that both governments own and communities own. We’ve got to stop doing things to our people.”

Mr Wyatt made history last month when he became the nation’s first Indigenous federal minister after joining the Turnbull cabinet.

By Wendy Caccetta

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