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“I don't know any of my relatives who have died of old age" - NT youth speaks out on heart disease

Dechlan Brennan -

"Another day. Another family member dies. Another funeral. I feel as though I attend more funerals than birthday celebrations. And I'd like that to change for the sake of future generations."

These are the opening lines in a letter from Darwin local, Nambi Henderson, which was read out in Parliament by Labor MP Luke Gosling on Thursday.

The 14-year-old Warumungu and Mudburra-Jingili girl from north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, currently lives in Darwin, in Mr Gosling's electorate of Solomon.

The MP, who is also the Chair of the House Standing Committee on Regional Development, Infrastructure and Transport, was speaking during Youth Voice in Parliament Week.

He acknowledged the organisation Raise Our Voice - a group aiming to amplify the voices of young women and gender-diverse people to help lead conversations in both politics and domestic and foreign policy.

Mr Gosling told Parliament he, along with many others, would read speeches that had been prepared on "what change they would make for Australia to be a better place for future generations."

Nambi said in the letter that her family are Warumungu, Mudburra and Jingili people, and despite having a rich history on the land, she laments: "Unfortunately, our future doesn't look so bright."

"I don't know any of my relatives who have died of old age. They have all died from alcoholism or chronic diseases like renal disease, diabetes and rheumatic heart disease (RHD)," she said in the letter.

"Just this month we buried one of my grandmothers."

Nambi spoke of her cousin-brother Troy, who at 17 is fit, tall and strong with dreams of the future, but who suffers from RHD. This keeps him in the hospital for lengthy periods at a time, and which may prevent him from a long life.

"There's no cure. But it is totally preventable," Nambi said.

"I wish my people didn't have to suffer through these diseases. It's hard to watch. And it's even harder to say goodbye.

"I know Aboriginal people have so much to contribute to this country, and that's why every day I hope that we can turn the tables on this situation."

Mr Gosling, while praising Nambi for highlighting the shocking health disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people both in the NT and around Australia, said the disproportionately high occurrence of RHD among Aboriginal people is a "disgrace."

He told National Indigenous Times that Labor's election promise to deliver an $11.6 million Danila Dilba Clinic in Palmerston was on track.

"The new facility will enable the Aboriginal community-controlled health organisation to expand their services, massively strengthening our collective efforts to combat a disease that should have already made Australia's medical history books," he said.

"Within our first six months, the Albanese Government also doubled the funding to NACCHO to $14.2 million to combat rheumatic heart disease in high-risk communities over the next three years.

"We continue to work in close partnership with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), community-controlled and other health services to close the gap in First Nations health outcomes."

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes "Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and RHD are preventable diseases disproportionately affecting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people living in regional and remote areas."

"Low socioeconomic status is associated both with greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and with lower chance of receiving appropriate treatment," the AIHW said.

92 per cent of ARF diagnoses between 2017-2021 were among Indigenous Australians, with the highest rate in those aged 5-14.

As of December 2021, 78 per cent of RHD diagnoses (5,238) were for Indigenous Australians, with the highest prevalence rate in the NT at 984 per 100,000.

In the period 2017-2021, there were a reported 1,750 new RHD diagnoses for First Nations people with the highest rate in the Northern Territory, with 193 per 100,000 people.

55 per cent of diagnoses were amongst Indigenous Australians under the age of 25 with diagnoses for females almost twice as common as males (97 per 100,000 and 53 per 100,00 respectively).

Nambi implored the government and all Australian's to improve the health outcomes for Aboriginal people.

"It would make Australia a better place and the future would be brighter for us all," she said.

"It would be amazing if all Australians could work together to see this through, and my greatest hope is to see it happen."

Mr Gosling said the RHD rate for Indigenous Territorians is "120 times greater than the national average."

"We very clearly must do better," he said.

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