A major study led by the Australian National University has reinforced the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to remain a priority group for the national vaccination program, with research finding long-term inequity increased the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Examining the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and smoking among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults, which increase the risk of severe illness in someone who contracts COVID-19, the study found more than half of adults had these and other existing conditions.
ANU researcher and advisor to the national authority on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care, Dr Jason Agostino said almost 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were at higher risk of getting very sick if they were unvaccinated and contracted COVID-19.
"People need to understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a priority population, and it's not about some problem with the Aboriginal gene or imaginary things like that," he said.
"It's about the key determinants of health and the ongoing impacts of colonisation and racism."
Dr Agostino said the research demonstrated clearly that people who were descendants of the Stolen Generations or members of the Stolen Generations themselves were at higher risk of severe disease.
The team, which included researchers from La Trobe University, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Lowitja Institute, used data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey to determine how risk factors contributed to severe COVID-19.
Dr Agostino said policy makers had an opportunity and responsibility to respond to these health inequalities now before the next outbreak or variant hit Australian shores.
"COVID is just the latest of a line of infectious diseases that have disproportionately affected Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples because of these health inequities around social determinants," Dr Agostino said.
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"If we look back at the swine flu pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died at five times the rate of non-Indigenous peoples and social determinants were at the core of that.
"If we look at rheumatic heart disease, that's eliminated from non Indigenous Australians basically, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have one of the highest rates of rheumatic heart disease in the world. And again, that's linked to key social determinants like housing.
"Until we address those things there's going to be another infectious disease that comes along and disproportionately affects the community."
The ACT was leading the nation in terms of its vaccination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people this week, with close to 67 per cent of the population over 12 having received one dose. More than 40 per cent had received two doses.
ANU lead researcher Dr Katie Thurber said if all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had access to key determinants of health the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 would be much lower in the population.
"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who have high household income, live in advantaged areas, are food secure, do not experience discrimination, were not forcibly removed from family, and have access to healthcare are at significantly lower risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19," she said.
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