Infant death report shows 'disturbing' regional divide

31 July, 2014

Extremely high infant death rates in some Australian communities underline why continued reporting of local health outcomes is vital, the Consumers Health Forum of Australia has said in a recent statement.

Figures released on Thursday (31 July) by the National Health Performance Authority (NHPA) broken down by Medicare local catchment show child mortality rates can be more than three times higher in some parts of Australia, compared to better performing regions, said CHF Chief Executive Officer, Adam Stankevicius.

"It is a stain on Australia's standing as a prosperous nation that indigenous babies should be at much greater risk of death than non-indigenous babies," he said.

"In the Northern Territory, there are 9.2 child deaths per 1000 live births compared to just 2.6 deaths in affluent Bayside, Melbourne," Stankevicius said.

"Australians generally may see this issue as remote but this statistic means Australia, with one of the world's best health systems, ranks only 14th out of 30 Western nations on infant mortality rates."

Contributing factors

Stankevicius said: "The high infant mortality results from systemic socio-economic factors, including poor housing and education, that go well beyond health system deficiencies.

"And these new figures also convey quite marked differences between similar socio-economic areas.

"In Greater Metro South Brisbane there are 6.1 deaths per 1000 live births, compared to 2.9 in South Western Melbourne.

"The child mortality rate in Country southern South Australia was 86 per cent higher than in comparable areas like Victoria's Goulburn Valley.

"Lower-income regional areas like the Nepean-Blue Mountains in NSW and Barwon in Victoria have rates similar or better than many higher-income metropolitan communities.

Potential for improvement

Stankevicius said: "The report says these marked differences potentially help to inform improvements in access to or delivery of services that could in time lead to reductions in avoidable deaths among infants and young children.

"The figures NHPA reports on are based on the populations within Medicare Locals, the institutions the government now proposes to remove.

"We trust that even after the demise of Medicare Locals the government will continue to enable the collection of health statistics based on these regional populations.

Maternity Choices spokeswoman Latisha Ryder said the stark differences were "disturbing".

"The question is how the variances are to be addressed. We need midwife lead care to follow women across the medical system," she said.

"Such primary care in New Zealand, the UK and Canada accounts for all of them having lower infant mortality rates than Australia."

NHPA chief executive Diane Watson said the findings would give health managers the chance to improve outcomes in their community.

She said: "(they can study) what is happening differently in better-performing peer areas, and applying those lessons in their own communities."