What do we know about communicable diseases among Indigenous people?
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What are communicable diseases?
Communicable diseases are diseases that are passed from person to person either by direct contact with an infected person or indirectly, such as through contaminated (dirty/unclean) food or water. Another example of indirect transmission is when the disease is spread through the air, such as when an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes in the air that contains the germ. Communicable diseases can be caused by:
- bacteria (e.g. tuberculosis)
- viruses (e.g. HIV)
- fungi (e.g. tinea)
- parasites (e.g. malaria) .
Improvements to personal and environmental cleanliness, and the introduction of new immunisations (vaccines), have greatly reduced the number of people who catch some communicable diseases .
If a person contracts (catches/develops) certain communicable diseases (like tuberculosis), the disease must be ‘notified'; this means that the information is collected by health authorities. Unfortunately, Indigenous status is often not reported in notifications. Only WA, SA, and the NT reliably identify Indigenous status in the notification of communicable diseases .
What is known about communicable diseases in the Indigenous population?
The communicable diseases that are most important to the health of Indigenous people include:
- hepatitis (A, B, and C)
- sexually transmissible infections (e.g. chlamydia, gonorrhoea)
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
- pneumococcal disease
- meningococcal disease
- skin infections and infestations .
Information about most of these communicable diseases, including how common they are in the Indigenous population, follows:
- a lung infection caused by a bacterium that can trigger a range of symptoms, such as coughing, weight loss, and fever
- tuberculosis notifications were 11 times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people in 2005-2009 (Derived from ).
- inflammation (involving swelling and tenderness) of the liver caused by viral infections, alcohol or other drugs, toxins, or an attack by the body's immune system on itself
- the most common types of hepatitis are hepatitis A, B, and C
- in 2009-2011:
o notifications for hepatitis C were more than 3.5 times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people
o hepatitis B notifications were the same for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people
o Notifications for hepatitis A were much lower for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people (Derived from ).
Chlamydia and gonorrhoea
- sexually transmissible infections that are caused by bacteria and can lead to a range of health conditions if left untreated, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (blocked tubes) in women
- in 2008-2010, notifications for chlamydia were almost nine times higher, and notifications for gonorrhoea were around 50 times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people (Derived from ).
- human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infection that destroys cells in the body's immune system
- acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the late stage of HIV and is when the body's immune system is weakened, meaning that even a minor infection may cause death
- the rate of HIV diagnosis was similar for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in 2011 .
Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)
- a bacterium that can cause a range of illnesses, such as meningitis, septicaemia, and pneumonia
- notifications for Hib were 20 times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous people in 2010 .
Invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD)
- caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, can lead to several major health conditions, such as pneumonia and meningitis
- notifications for IPD were more than seven times higher for Indigenous people than for other Australians in 2006-2008 .
- caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, can lead to meningitis, meningococcaemia without meningitis, and septic arthritis
- notifications for Indigenous children aged 0-4 years were nearly five times higher than for non-Indigenous children in 2003-2006 .
Skin infections and infestations
- scabies is caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabiei, which results in itchy skin ; scratching the skin can result in secondary infection
- scabies is widespread in some remote central and northern Indigenous communities, with reports of up to 50% of children and up to 25% of adults being affected by this skin condition
- in 2006-2008, skin conditions accounted for around 3.9% of hospital admissions (excluding dialysis) for Indigenous people, 2.3 times the rate for other Australians .