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.
Facing family violence
The once taboo issue of domestic violence is finally achieving a critical mass of headlines, with annual White Ribbon Day prompting widespread coverage of the issue.
In the ABC’s two-part documentary Hitting Home, journalist Sarah Ferguson gave an unflinching insight into the issue, looking at how an abusive relationship escalates to violence and even to murder, and explored what could be done to intervene. Under the headline “These women are not just statistics”, ABC News Online published a gallery of illustrations and stories of 38 women who had died this year, and whose partners or ex-partners had reportedly been charged in relation to their death or named as the suspect in a murder-suicide.
New research showed that many Australians blame the victim when they are told about cases of girls and young women experiencing disrespectful and aggressive behaviour from their male peers, The Guardian reported. And The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian children see the consumption of alcohol and drugs among adults as a leading cause of child abuse. A global survey of children aged 10to 12 conducted by ChildFund Alliance found that 70 per cent of Australian children blamed adult consumption of alcohol and drugs for the mistreatment of children, compared with 4 per cent of children globally.
MP Sarah Henderson gave a moving personal perspective in Parliament, telling of a family friend who died just days ago in a domestic violence incident. She urged:
“We have to break this cycle of violence, which in many cases is being fuelled by drugs, alcohol, rage, revenge – and perverse attitudes by men who think it is OK to hurt a woman.”
In one piece of positive news, Our Watch chair Natasha Stott Despoja launched the world’s first evidence-based national framework to focus on preventing violence against women and children. The Change the Story framework is aimed at giving guidance to government, organisations and communities and outlines a strategic approach to achieve effective leadership, co-ordination, resourcing and support for violence-prevention efforts across Australia, as detailed on The Conversation.
A hot topic
With reports that global warming and El Nino were set to make 2015 the hottest year on record and in the lead up to the United Nations climate conference in Paris, the health impact of climate change is making headlines.
Croakey reported that thousands of People’s Climate marches were being planned around the world for this weekend. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement warning that climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year. And a report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimated that weather-related disasters over the past two decades have killed more than 600,000 people, and inflicted economic losses estimated at trillions of dollars, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Guardian asked whether heat stress would be the next global public health crisis, revealing that the deaths of farm workers from chronic kidney disease (CKD) in Central America were now being linked to extreme temperature. Ramón García Trabanino, president of the Association of Nephrology of El Salvador and a leading expert on CKD said the silent disease, which has no known cure, was affecting thousands of people in Central America. He said:
“If the research demonstrates that CKD is unequivocally related to heat stress, then we will have a severe public health problem because global warming will affect everyone.”
Action on Indigenous health and justice
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has vowed to act to close the huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous incarceration rates, saying the issue will be pursued at the first meeting of federal and state leaders under a Shorten government, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. In his speech, which you can read on Croakey, Mr Shorten pledged new justice targets that focused on community safety, preventing crime and reducing incarceration ‒ “less crime and less punishment”. He said:
“Because nowhere is the story of unfairness and diminished opportunity more clearly defined than in the justice gap between the first Australians and the rest of us.”
More action may have saved the life of 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu, who died of advanced sepsis and pneumonia while in custody, an coronial inquest in Perth heard. The Guardian reported that an expert in Indigenous health who conducted a review of Ms Dhu’s treatment told the inquest that doctors who declared she was fit to serve time in custody less than 48 hours before her death would have made more effort to diagnose her if she had been white.
This fortnight has also seen reports that expensive deals on funeral insurance schemes have been sold to Aboriginal children and babies. According to the ABC, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has vowed to look into the issue, after an investigation by company watchdog Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) found 50 per cent of Aboriginal consumers of funeral insurance are under 20 and 33 per cent are under 15.
The issue of a cashless welfare card ‒ or “healthy welfare card” ‒ continues to divide opinion. The Australian reported that East Kimberley leaders say it could be a catalyst for breaking the “devastating cycle” of poverty, hopelessness and despair arising from alcohol abuse and welfare dependency in the community where it is set to be trialled. While the ABC reported the Government has committed to offset the tough measures with better support services for people facing drug or alcohol addiction, the Greens have campaigned against the card, labelling it paternalistic and authoritarian.
In an article on The Conversation, University of Queensland researchers queried the Government’s motivation behind the card, raising questions about whether the initiative is a universal reform in disguise.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an overhaul of the country’s “fragmented” mental health system, outlining nine key action areas and promising to provide more flexible care options to people living with mental illness, as detailed on Croakey. The Huffington Post reported that under the new approach, those needing complex care would have access to services including care-coordination support, psychological services, mental health nursing, drug and alcohol services, vocational assistance and peer support.
The change to a “stepped care” approach to mental health services would not see extra overall funding, according to ABC News, with the Federal Government currently spending about $10 billion on mental health each year.
“Mental illness gnaws away at participation, it gnaws away at productivity,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. “Treating it more effectively, managing in a more dynamic individual centred approach — that is going to be transformative.”
While the announcement was welcomed by mental health bodies, there was less enthusiasm for another Federal Government health reform: the freeze on the indexation of Medicare rebates. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Associate Professor James Gillespie of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy had warned the government may face a “political crisis” in a few years if it doesn’t reverse the freeze. According to The Australian (paywall), Health Minister Sussan Ley has not ruled out lifting the controversial rebate freeze.
Meanwhile, The Age reported that the Government was rushing to pass changes to the Medicare safety net without releasing details on the extent of their impact on chronically ill patients.
And the Australian revealed that removing unproven natural therapies from the scope of the health insurance rebate was unlikely to deliver sufficient savings to warrant the cost of doing so, according to Health Minister Sussan Ley, despite damning findings of a review of the therapies conducted by the chief medical officer Chris Baggoley.
On the other side of the political divide, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced a plan to raise $3.8 billion by increasing tobacco taxes, pushing the price of a pack of cigarettes to $40. There’s discussion about the role of tobacco taxes in tobacco control, and how to take care they do not exacerbate disadvantage, in this PDF wrap of news from the recent Oceania Tobacco Control Conference published by Croakey.
As news broke of Coca-Cola’s top scientist stepping down from the post, revelations emerged that the beverage giant initiated a strategy of funding scientific research that played down the role of Coke products in the spread of obesity. The New York Times reported that chief scientist Rhona S. Applebaum helped orchestrate the establishment of a nonprofit group known as the Global Energy Balance Network. whose members encouraged the public to focus on exercise and worry less about how calories from food and beverages contribute to obesity.
In what may be a world-first, The Sydney Morning Herald detailed the launch of a radical new Australian drug company, For Benefit Medicines that will funnel 100 per cent of its profits back into treatment and research.
Australian scientists are in need of a morale boost, according to a new survey, which found three in five say morale at their workplaces has slumped during the past year, and almost two-thirds say worker fatigue has increased. The Australian reported that more than three-quarters say cost-cutting is gutting their organisations’ science capability and almost one-third say there are fewer scientists in leadership roles.
Female scientists did receive some positive news, with the Australian Research Council (ARC) announcing its Gender Equality Action Plan, aimed at ensuring equal opportunity for men and women in taking part in its national competitive grant program, according to an article on The Conversation.
Meanwhile The Age reported that the Turnbull government wants to end the “publish or perish” culture in academia, by dramatically downgrading the importance of publishing articles in little-read academic journals as part of an overhaul of the way university research is funded.
The world is on the cusp of a “post antibiotic era”, BBC News reported, after scientists found bacteria that were resistant to the “last resort” drugs used when all other treatments have failed. The news came as Huffington Post reported on WHO findings that people are alarmingly confused about the role of antibiotics and the right way to take them. Croakey wrote that the WHO’s first World Antibiotic Awareness Week, was an opportunity to highlight the local, national and global actions needed in the face of such a massive public health threat, in an article headlined: “Call to action: ‘The culture of using antibiotics as placebo must stop’.
In other infectious disease news, a report found that the WHO’s “slow” and “ineffective” response to the Ebola crisis caused thousands of unnecessary deaths, and a 15-year-old boy reportedly died of the infection in Liberia, less than three months after the country was declared free of the virus. In the UK, the government announced it would create a new £1bn fund aimed at eradicating malaria and other infectious diseases.
Actor Charlie Sheen’s public announcement that he is HIV positive made international news, with The Conversation highlighting the continuing stigma surrounding the disease, evidenced by the fact that in the four years since his diagnosis, the star paid more than $US10 million to buy people’s silence about his HIV status .
Misinformation about HIV is still rife, judging by a story on ABC Online about an apology by the Indonesia’s health ministry after a printing error led to poster being put up claiming that HIV could be transmitted through mosquito bites, swimming and sneezing.
No monkey business
The US Federal Government’s long and controversial history of using chimpanzees for biomedical research has come quietly to an end, The Washington Post reported, with National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins announcing that the last 50 chimpanzees held by the government for medical research will be sent to sanctuaries.
But it appears a different breed of animal is winging its way onto researchers’ radars. ABC News reported that a US study showed pigeons can be trained to differentiate between images of benign and malignant breast tissue using a set of touch screen slides. While the study was aimed at providing insight into how physicians develop visual skills for diagnosis, and how they process visual cues. the authors said the results suggested the birds “could be used as suitable surrogates for human observers in certain medical image perception studies, thus avoiding the need to recruit, pay, and retain clinicians as subjects for relatively mundane tasks.”
Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:
Megan Howe is Publications Manger at the Sax Instute, Follow @Saxinstitute or Megan via @meghowe68 on Twitter.