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Higher disease burden for Indigenous Australians, but improving

27 September, 2016

While Indigenous Australians face a substantially higher disease burden than non-Indigenous Australians, improvements have been seen, with more possible, according to a new report released 23 September 2016 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 2011, analyses the impact of diseases and injuries in terms of the number of years of healthy life lost through living with an illness or injury (the non-fatal burden) and the number of years of life lost through dying prematurely from an illness or injury (the fatal burden).

'Indigenous Australians experienced a burden of disease that was more than twice that of non-Indigenous Australians,' said AIHW spokesperson Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman.

Chronic diseases caused 64% of the overall burden among Indigenous Australians, with mental & substance use disorders accounting for the largest proportion of the burden (19%). This was followed by injuries including suicide (15%), cardiovascular diseases (12%), cancer (9%) and respiratory diseases (8%).

Just over half (53%) of the overall burden was fatal burden, and males accounted for a greater share of the total than females (54% compared with 46%).

While the gap in disease burden between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remains significant, the report shows some improvements among the Indigenous population in recent years.

'Between 2003 and 2011, total burden of disease in the Indigenous population fell by 5%, with an 11% reduction in the fatal burden,' Dr Al-Yaman said.

'However, over the same period, there was a 4% increase in non-fatal burden. This suggests a shift from dying prematurely to living longer with disease.'

The non-Indigenous population experienced a 16% decrease in fatal burden and a 4% decrease in non-fatal burden over this period.

The largest reduction in the Indigenous rate of total disease burden was for cardiovascular diseases. There were also falls in the burden caused by high blood pressure, physical inactivity and high cholesterol.

The Northern Territory and Western Australia had higher rates of Indigenous burden of disease than New South Wales and Queensland (the 4 jurisdictions for which estimates are reported). Large inequalities were also seen across remoteness areas, with Remote and Very remote areas having higher rates of disease burden than non-remote areas.

The report shows that a significant portion of the overall disease burden was preventable.

'By reducing risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use, high body mass, physical inactivity and poor diet, over one-third of the overall burden for Indigenous Australians could be avoided,' Dr Al-Yaman said.

These risk factors—and the associated health conditions—are profiled in the AIHW's most recent biennial health report, Australia's health 2016.

Advising the AIHW on the Indigenous component of the Australian Burden of Disease Study was a group of experts and representatives from a range of organisations, including the Australian Government Department of Health, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, jurisdictional health departments, and the National Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisation (NACCHO).

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