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The Health Wrap: Deal or no deal on health dollars, Indigenous suicide crisis, Zika and other infectious news, hot topics and more.

This fortnight’s Health Wrap is compiled by Megan Howe, the Sax Institute’s Publications Manager. Enjoy the Wrap and tweet us via @saxinstitute if you have any ideas for future issues.

Deal or no deal on health dollars?

The long-running dispute over health and education funding between the states and the Federal Government has been the focus of much media speculation this fortnight, with ABC News Online reporting that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been calling premiers in a bid to try to strike a deal before the federal election.

There were reports that an interim, short-term deal could see the states handed $7 billion over four years, but Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison told ABC’s AM program that talk of such a deal was “premature”.

Private health insurance was also in the spotlight, with the news that premiums would increase by an average of 5.59 per cent from 1 April.

The Sydney Morning Herald said Health Minister Sussan Ley was chalking up the outcome as a win for consumers, having requested insurers resubmit their applications for premiums in January, which led to 20 funds subsequently lowering their demands.

The Minister told The Australian (paywall) that the $6 billion spent subsidising private health insurance was not ­delivering value for money and would be used by the federal government to leverage reforms to the industry.

Writing on Croakey, Elizabeth Savage, Professor of Health Economics at University of Technology Sydney, asked whether the private health premium increase was justified.

Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Ross Gittins argued that doctors “shared the blame” for a sick budget, and doctors were the focus of a new report entitled “Chronic Failure in Primary Care: released by the Grattan Institute. It claimed improved GP-led care would prevent more than 250,000 unnecessary hospital admissions a year, sparking a call from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) for more funding for GPs to deal with chronic disease, as discussed on ABC’s The World Today.

The Grattan Institute itself was in the news, with Croakey looking at Medibank Private’s announcement that it had become an affiliate partner of the independent public health policy think tank.

*****

Indigenous suicide crisis

The tragic news that a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl had taken her own life in far north Western Australia, the youngest of 19 Indigenous people to kill themselves in remote areas of the state since December, sparked calls for urgent action.

Suicide researcher Gerry Georgatos will travel to the town to support the community in his role as a coordinator for the Indigenous suicide critical response unit, a $1million federally-funded trail program that aims to provide culturally appropriate assistance to curb the flow-on effects of suicide.  It’s the 16th such trip he has made since taking up the position, Guardian Australia reported.

[quote]“It’s now a humanitarian crisis, we can’t have it go on like this,” Mr Georgatos said. “Every child in that community, every adult in that community will know of this child’s death. If something will lead to more deaths, it’s the sense of hopelessness that follows an event like this.”[/quote]

Also writing on Guardian Australia, Stan Grant asked:

[quote]“When is enough enough? What does it take to snap us out of out of our complacency? How many needless deaths does it take to tell us that Indigenous Australia is in deep, deep crisis?”[/quote]

The Age reported that Aboriginal health advocates were calling for better access to mental health professionals in remote communities to combat child suicide, following the tragedy.

The news came just days after ABC News Online reported on the fight to stem the rising Indigenous suicide rate, and as new Australian Bureau of Statistics figures revealed that a steep rise in deaths by suicide among middle-aged Australians and young women had driven the national suicide rate to its highest level in 13 years, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Lifeline CEO Pete Schmigel told ABC News Online that it was time for Australia’s health authorities to acknowledge it was a crisis.

[quote]”Devastating is the only way to describe the increase in deaths by suicide in Australia,” he said.[/quote]

This all again raised concerns about how the media covers these stories. As Marc Bryant, Manager of the Mindframe National Media Initiative at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, said in this Croakey article, suicide is not the same as advocacy for other public health issues, which have no reported evidence linking the way it is reported to possible harms. The way media report suicide can make a difference to our rates of suicide, he said in the piece which examines complexities confronting those involved in communications in this space, whether in advocacy, journalism or wider public debate.

In other Indigenous health news this fortnight, there were calls for a permanent Aboriginal medical service to be established in western Sydney, amid concerns that a second Aboriginal health service in the area is on the brink of closure.

And ABC News Online reported that the family of a young Aboriginal man who died while waiting for an ambulance has been awarded $220,000 compensation.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson urged Indigenous communities to take greater care of their children, warning that the quest for self-determination is being ­undermined by continued neglect and abuse, as reported by The Australian (paywall).

In one piece of more positive news, a new 10-year plan was launched in Queensland to tackle middle ear disease in Indigenous communities, with 500 health workers to be up-skilled to better identify the condition and the State Government setting a goal of helping at least 5000 children over the next year.

And, as part of its #JustJustice series, Croakey published a long read article on the Koorie Cultural Program that has been introduced at the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct, in inner suburban Melbourne, in a bid to put culture and community at the heart of education and rehabilitation.

To help mark the 10th anniversary of the community-driven Close the Gap campaign, Professor Kerry Arabena, Chair of Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne, also issued this invitation on Croakey to join a Twit-a-thon “Hour of Power” on Thursday 17 March using the hashtag #CTG10.

For help or more information

For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support

  • If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
  • For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line on 1800 55 1800
  • For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.

*****

Zika and other infectious news

There are growing fears about the spread of the Zika virus, with the BBC reporting that hundreds of thousands of people in Puerto Rico could become infected in the coming months, according to a warning from the director of America’s Centre for Disease Control Dr Tom Friedan who said this could lead to “thousands” of brain-damaged babies. The virus has now been reported in 31 countries, with Brazil the worst hit.

The Zika threat moved closer to home, with homes in Townsville being sprayed to quash a potential outbreak after a local resident fell ill after returning from overseas.

Newsweek said researchers had taken a critical step in proving the Zika virus was most likely the cause of the rising number of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, after a study on lab cultures showed that the virus  destroys certain brain cells, which leads to serious birth defects.

Scientists also confirmed that the Zika virus could trigger a debilitating neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome – in which the body’s immune system attacks a part of the nervous system that controls muscle strength ‒ according to study covered by ABC News Online.

The Guardian reported on a new Amnesty International report, which warned that the Zika epidemic in Latin America had highlighted dangerous levels of discrimination against women in reproductive healthcare. In the study of restrictions on contraception and abortion, the human rights group accused governments in the region of propagating violence against women who were at risk of arrest, injury or death if they illegally terminated pregnancies.

Zika may have shifted our focus away from the deadly 2014 Ebola outbreak, but an article on Croakey revealed frontline clinical staff in Australia may not be adequately prepared if Ebola was to reach our shores, according to new research.

The Ebola infection’s devastating long-lasting impact was revealed by BBC News, which reported on findings that large numbers of survivors of the infection in Liberia had developed weakness, memory loss and depressive symptoms in the six months after being discharged from an Ebola unit. Other patients were actively suicidal or still having hallucinations, according to findings presented at the Academy of Neurology.

Dr Lauren Bowen, from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told the BBC:

[quote]

“It was pretty striking, this is a young population of patients, and we wouldn’t expect to have seen these sorts of problems. When people had memory loss, it tended to affect their daily living, with some feeling they couldn’t return to school or normal jobs, some had terrible sleeping problems.

“Ebola hasn’t gone away for these people.”

[/quote]

The long term health effects of the virus saw Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey hospitalised in London for a third time since contracting Ebola, BBC reported.

*****

Hot topics

Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr Margaret Chan described climate change as the defining issue for public health in the 21st century, prompting Croakey to ask the Federal Health Department what it was doing to address climate change (and other public health issues).

Dr Chan’s comments came as a Climate Council report warned Australia is underprepared to deal with the escalating problem of extreme “killer” heatwaves and that a “whole of society approach” is needed to deal with the problem, as reported by ABC News Online.

And two reports commissioned by the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities showed that increases in family violence and mental health problems  due to stress of natural disasters was set to outweigh the cost of rebuilding infrastructure, according to Guardian Australia.

Meanwhile, black lung, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Australia decade ago, is now the focus of a Senate inquiry, after cases re-emerged among miners. A respiratory physician told the inquiry it was very likely the disease had been present all along, but not picked up, as reported by news.com.au.

Illicit drug use was also a hot topic, with research by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre revealing a substantial rise in the number of regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia over the past five years, with the increase most marked among young adults aged between 15 and 34 years.

This article on The Conversation argued that some of the greatest harms from using illicit drugs were because they are illegal, and urged reform of Australia’s recreational drug policies.

While researchers and doctors were urging an annual parliamentary drug policy summit to remove criminal penalties for drug possession, debate raged over whether pill testing should be allowed at music festivals to minimise harm to drug users. NSW Premier Mike Baird reaffirmed his government’s opposition to the move, describing pill testing as tantamount to condoning illegal drugs.

Alcohol use was also in the spotlight, with the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education suggesting that if the Federal government taxed all alcohol products by the volume of alcohol they contained, alcohol consumption would drop almost 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, Croakey took a big picture approach, exploring a concept called “lifestyle drift” to address the tendency to focus on small interventions based on personal choice or “lifestyle”, when it is clear the big issues such as social disadvantage, lack of education and powerlessness have the most effect on health. It also published reviews by Dr Rosalie Schultz on Climate Change and Global Health and Luke Craven on Grassroots to Government: creating joined-up working in Australia.

Science under scrutiny

Chiropractors are coming under further scrutiny, with the Chiropractic Board of Australia issuing a directive that they stop advertising claims that they can physically manipulate patients to treat diseases, infections and childhood illnesses, ABC News Online revealed.  The letter warned that many of the claims were not supported by satisfactory evidence, and practitioners should not promote information that is anti-vaccination in nature.

The Fairfax press reported claims that the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University had overplayed the benefits of natural therapies and failed to tell the public about complementary medicines that it knew did not meet their label claims. The Institute’s director denied the criticism that the organisation was too reliant on sponsorship to carry out independent research.

Also on the subject of transparency and influence, schools, universities, not-for-profit organisations, youth and community groups, charities, and sporting initiatives emerged as among those that have taken Coca-Cola funding in Australia, reported Croakey on details released by Coca-Cola South Pacific.

As we celebrated International Women’s Day, The Australian reported on a study showing that women graduating in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines are among the most disadvantaged, earning salaries around 33% less than their male peers, and this article on The Conversation argued that the scientific community needs to take greater measure to close the global gender gap. Croakey also posted a wrap of recommended reading, viewing and listening on International Women’s Day, while this Croakey article found that the Federal Government’s new  ‘Girls Make Your Move’ exercise ads look good but are unlikely to deliver on their own.

In his address to The National Press Club, Chief Scientist Professor Alan Finkel’s also raised the issue of gender equity in STEM careers.

[quote]“How many women give up on promising careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers, but by their mid-30s a serious gender gap starts to appear. We are improving – but we have a long way to go.”[/quote]

Meanwhile, this piece on The Conversation raised concerns about the future of one of Australia’s research resources, with funding cuts to the National Library of Australia’s Trove service which pulls together metadata and content from multiple sources into one platform.

And finally, in a story with the web headline “Dog bites academics”, The Guardian reported that the editors of a German journal have apologised after being fooled by fake PhD student’s paper on role of alsatians in totalitarianism.

 Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:

Megan Howe is Publications Manager at the Sax Institute. Follow @Saxinstitute or Megan @meghowe68 

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