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How an NT community with shocking heart disease rate is turning its health crisis around

Giovanni Torre -

A local-led effort is turning around the shockingly high rate of two dangerous heart diseases in Arnhem Land's remote Maningrida community.

Maningrida residents suffered the highest rates of acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease in the country before Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service Mala'la began working to tackle the scourge.

The community, about 520 km east of Darwin, is home to more than 3000 people, 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous.

Mala'la Health health and community service manager Lesley Woolf said Maningrida was desperate for action to tackle the high rate of heart disease.

"Prior to the commencement of our program Maningrida had the highest incidence of rheumatic heart disease and acute rheumatic fever in Australia if not the world," she said.

Ms Woolf said the organisation running health services in the community prior to Mala'la had done a good job with limited resources, but Mala'la had greater capacity to secure funding.

"In 2019 we had the opportunity to get Commonwealth funds," she said.

"That gave us the chance to work with the community, who were very passionate about getting action, to develop and implement a plan.

"We were able to get additional staff and to look at environmental issues and addressing them."

In 2018 more than 600 school children in the community were screened for RHD and one in 20 were diagnosed with rheumatic disease.

Mala'la worked closely with the local school to provide education, health screening, health promotion, secondary prophylaxis and treatment to school children and their families.

This also included working with One Disease in treating scabies and providing education about skin care from a community-based approach.

Community engagement and awareness, as well as active case finding through echocardiographic screening, contributed to an increase in the number of people accessing care for RHD.

Mala'la collaborated with specialists from Royal Darwin Hospital, Menzies School of Health Research and other community members to detect cases of RHD and build local workforce capacity.

Local health workers were trained in echocardiography and were supported to perform abbreviated echocardiogram screening at the local school and community pool.

Community members also delivered health promotion and education sessions.

An additional three years of funding has now been committed to expand Mala'la's capacity to deliver ARF and RHD services to the Maningrida community and surrounding outstations.

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