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NT community bucks Indigenous health trend

AM - Wednesday, 11 October , 2006  08:24:00

TONY EASTLEY: There've been a host of stories lately which have drawn attention to chronic problems in Aboriginal townships, but researchers have come across one Northern Territory community where it's doing exceptionally well, where the death rate is almost 40 per cent below the average.

The community also has low rates of sexually transmitted disease and almost no domestic violence.

And it's called Utopia.

Katrina Bolton reports.

KATRINA BOLTON: Utopia is real, but it's in an unlikely place, deep in the sands of the central Australian desert, about three hours from Alice Springs.

Its people live on 16 small outstations, strewn across thousands of square kilometres. It's exactly the sort of place that many people say causes problems.

But researcher Kevin Rowley from the University of Melbourne says Utopians have better health than elsewhere in the Territory.

KEVIN ROWLEY: The death rate, from all causes, is about 40 per cent lower than for Indigenous people in the Territory as a whole, and likewise the cardiovascular death rate is also about 40 per cent lower. And hospitalisation for cardiovascular causes is very low compared to the rest of the Northern Territory and Australia, Indigenous people in Australia generally.

KATRINA BOLTON: Those figures back-up earlier research showing people at all but one of Utopia's outstations have avoided the nationwide increase in obesity.

KEVIN ROWLEY: There was no change in the average weight during that period, and that's remarkable, and I don't think that's ever happened. I don't think it's been recorded for anywhere else in Australia.

They achieved prevention of obesity and prevention of diabetes and prevention of smoking.

KATRINA BOLTON: Many Utopians live in humpies instead of houses, and hunt for almost all their food.

Community members such as Lena Pwerle believe the traditional lifestyle and its delicacies, like kangaroo blood, are what's keeping people healthy.

LENA PWERLE: We eat potato, bush tucker. That's why all the kids is getting strong.

KATRINA BOLTON: The community says it's also because their doctor, Kamananda Suraswati (phonetic), drives to the outstations, delivering bush medicines as well as conventional pills.

KAMANANDA SURASWATI: I might check up your pressure and sugar.

PATIENT: Yeah.

KATRINA BOLTON: But Dr Suraswati is worried politicians will use the negative stories from other communities to pull funding and support from outstations.

KAMANANDA SURASWATI: And even if they're just speaking from an economic perspective, you've also got to cost in the cost, if there was 30 to 40 per cent more cardiovascular disease and inpatient time in hospitals, and more evacuations to the hospital and that - you need to factor in all those costs.

But more than that, I think these people are entitled to be supported in the way of life that they've chosen, especially if the data's showing that they're better off, because after all, people's health is what we're supposed to be on about. And if we're not seeking people's health, then what kind of a political agenda are we following?

TONY EASTLEY: Dr Kamananda Suraswati in that report from Katrina Bolton.

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