Australia has good reason to be proud about its "Close the Gap" Indigenous eye health campaign. At the latest Close the Gap conference in Melbourne, a world-renowned ophthalmologist said that blindness cases have been halved in Indigenous communities over the past ten years.
Professor Hugh Taylor, who teaches at the University of Melbourne, said that Indigenous people had rates of blindness six times higher than non-Indigenous people in 2006. By 2016, however, Indigenous people only had blindness rates three times higher than non-Indigenous people.
Interestingly, Professor Taylor accredits this dramatic reversal with the implementation of better public health measures in Indigenous areas. In particular, Dr. Taylor praised the positive changes that have been made in helping Indigenous people obtain clean water and cleaning products.
The main reason Indigenous Australians suffer from higher rates of blindness has to do with a higher incidence of trachoma. Trachoma is an eye disease that travels via a bacterium known as Chlamydia trachomatis. This bacterium spreads more quickly in Indigenous communities because both Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders don't have as scrupulous personal hygiene practices as non-Indigenous people.
Chlamydia trachomatis can easily infect a person's eye after they wipe their face with unclean hands. The bacterium most often travels between children and is extremely contagious.
Taylor said that providing Indigenous Australians with sanitized bathrooms and teaching them to always wash their hands helped dramatically reduce cases of trachoma. He hopes that increasing the Indigenous public's awareness of the importance of personal hygiene will help to totally eliminate cases of trachoma very soon.
Besides trachoma, Indigenous people in Australia also suffer from higher rates of cataracts and diabetic retinopathy. Research is ongoing into why Indigenous Australians have a higher susceptibility to these diseases.
Although these numbers are headed in the right direction, Dr. Taylor believes Australia can do even better. He formally asked the Australian government to donate an additional $10 million each year to help fully close this gap by 2020.
In the next few years, Dr. Taylor wants the Close the Gap project to invest in gathering and organizing statistical data from different Indigenous groups around Australia. He wants to use this data to develop better treatment and hygienic strategies to help both Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginals.
Another issue many Indigenous people are facing in Australia has to do with a higher prevalence of ear disorders. The Search program, which began as a part of Sydney's Sax Institute, now has a division dedicated specifically to hearing problems in Aboriginal youths. This program, called the Heals project, offers assistance to Aboriginal children with middle-ear infections.
Research has shown that if Aboriginal children don't get proper care for their hearing diseases early on, they have lower test scores and find it more difficult to land a job. Also, Aboriginal kids with middle-ear diseases often develop slurred speech and are more prone to resort to a life of crime.
Thankfully, the Heals program has helped over 100 Aboriginal children get the proper care for their middle-ear diseases. People involved in the Heals project say it's amazing to see the positive changes that occur after these children can hear properly again.
Both the Heals project and Close the Gap initiative believe that with continued effort the Indigenous communities of Australia will see and hear just as clearly as Australia's non-Indigenous population already does.