The Health Wrap: The Vegemite news spread; On your bike (sans helmet); a chronic problem; funding medical research and teens' troubling mental health.
Aug 17, 2015
This week’s Health Wrap is compiled by my colleague Megan Howe, the Sax Institute’s Publications Manager. Enjoy the Wrap and tweet us via @medicalmedia or @meghowe68 if you have any ideas for future issues.
By Megan Howe
The Vegemite news spread
The use and abuse of alcohol took centre stage in the media this fortnight, with much airplay both in Australia and abroad being devoted to Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Nigel Scullion’s claim that Vegemite was being brewed to make alcohol in some remote communities – despite a lack of evidence that it is actually happening.
Senator Scullion said Vegemite was a “precursor to misery” in the hands of brewers skirting alcohol restrictions, the Guardian reported. The UK Telegraph published the story with a headline stating “Australia proposes limiting Vegemite sales to prevent alcohol abuse” while CNN reported that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had warned against a “Vegemite watch”, or restrictions on the sale of Vegemite in remote communities.
ABC News talked to a fermentation expert who raised doubts about Senator Scullion’s claims, saying the yeast in the spread would almost certainly be dead by the time it arrived on shop shelves so would be of no use in making moonshine.
And Croakey raised the point that there hadn’t been anywhere near the same level of media attention given to a recent House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs report that made a raft of sensible recommendations for addressing alcohol-related harms.
Also on the issue of the harms of alcohol, a new study revealed that Australian children are exposed to thousands of alcohol advertisements on television sporting games, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
And The Australian reported (paywall) that recent good news from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare about an unexpected decline in alcohol consumption in recent years may have been misguided. New research based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that average daily alcohol intake had actually increased by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2011‒12.
The findings came as a Flinders University study estimated that hangovers were causing 11.5 million “sick days” a year at a cost of $3 billion to the Australian economy.
Addressing other addictions
Moves to tackle other addictions were also making news, with The Guardian reporting that NSW prison staff were on standby in case of rioting as a smoking ban came into force in the state’s correctional centres this week. The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that hundreds of prison officers who live in correctional centres were exempt from the smoking ban following a state government backdown that had been criticised by prisoner rights’ groups and health experts. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a sharp fall in demand for quit smoking services was linked to the growing use of e-cigarettes, according to BBC News.
ABC News reported on a study that found problem gambling was up to 15 times higher among fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers than the general population.
And Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie revealed that her son was battling an ice addiction, during a Senate debate on proposed welfare cuts. She plans to introduce a private member’s bill to enable parents to force their drug-dependent children into mandatory treatment ‒ a strategy that isn’t the solution, according to a piece on The Conversation.
One solution to the cravings experienced in addiction may at hand be on your smartphone, according to medical news website 6minutes, which reported (registration required) that an Australian researcher had come up with a novel way to stem cravings for food, coffee, cigarettes or sex ‒ a quick game of the block-arranging game Tetris.
A chronic problem
Chronic illness was also centre stage this fortnight, with Health Minister Sussan Ley releasing new data showing that half of all Australians are suffering from a chronic illness, Nine Mornings reported. The report came after policy experts, health insurers, academics, professional colleges and consumer groups called for urgent health funding reforms to better support people with chronic illness and ensure best use of limited budgets, according to The Australian (paywall).
Michael Thorn, chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that public health activists despaired of the prospects of an adequate strategy to tackle chronic disease, following the Abbott Government’s having almost entirely dismantled Australia’s national preventive health system.
And Terry Findlay, director of the UNSW Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, writing on Croakey, said the Centre, which has a focus on the prevention and management of chronic disease, was advocating for equity to be at the heart of the debate about the future of primary healthcare.
On your bike (sans helmet)
The Australian reported (paywall) that some doctors had urged parliament to dismantle laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets, saying the safety measure was dissuading unfit Australians from riding their bikes. The call was outlined in submissions from three doctors to the Senate inquiry into “nanny state” public safety laws. There is of course, an evidence base around bike helmet safety, which is currently being researched by groups such as the Transport and Road Safety research group at UNSW.
Exercise is one thing, but when it comes to diet, we are also in need of some help, according to a story in The Guardian which warned Australians were shunning fruits and vegetables while consuming three times the recommended daily allowance of junk food, according to a survey that asked more than 40,000 people about their eating habits. On average, Australians scored 61 points out of 100 for their diet quality, the survey found.
Indigenous health – a glimmer of hope
There was a glimmer of good news on Indigenous health with the release of new figures showing that the Indigenous mortality rate from cardiac conditions had fallen by 41% since 1998, as reported by The Guardian.
And Croakey highlighted how the wider primary healthcare sector could learn a lot from the Aboriginal community controlled health sector. At the Third National Aboriginal Health Summit in Darwin, presentations reviewing the history of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) highlighted the diverse range of clinical, public health and political strategies that have been successfully employed to improve Aboriginal health in the NT.
But the news wasn’t all positive. Western Australia’s Chief Justice Wayne Martin told a parliamentary inquiry that some Aboriginal children in remote communities saw detention “as a better place to be” because they can escape physical and sexual abuse and get fed. WA Today reported that the state’s top judge said some children as young as 10 were deliberately committing crimes because they would rather spend time in detention than go home.
In response, Summer May Finlay wrote at Croakey that the Chief Justice’s comments and associated media reports revealed “a simplistic, unhelpful view” of the complex factors contributing to the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people, and that WA Government and justice systems need to take stock of their own contributions. In another post, Finlay acknowledged that WA is often in the headlines for policies that are harmful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but she said the state’s report: “Listen to Us: Using the views of WA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people to improve policy and service delivery” was essential reading.
Senator Nova Peris, in a speech about the government’s treatment of Indigenous Australians, said some Aboriginal people were opting to stay in residential rehabilitation units over returning to impoverished communities to avoid homelessness and the temptation of alcohol and drugs, according to a report on news.com.au.
And it emerged this week that more than three quarters of Aboriginal children in Broken Hill have blood lead levels above national guidelines. ABC News reported that in its latest annual snapshot, the Far West Local Health District found that 76 per cent of young Aboriginal children in Broken Hill had blood lead levels above the new NHMRC threshold of five micrograms per decilitre.
The issue of syphilis was also raised, with this Croakey post looking at the recent syphilis outbreak in Central Australia and might measures might be needed for its eradication.
And for a great discussion on the need for us to tackle the health impacts of racism, this Croakey post is the place to go.
Funding medical research
The Abbott government’s $20 billion medical research future fund has cleared the Senate despite concerns about the potential for its funding decisions to be politicised, according to The Guardian. The government said the fund would firm Australia’s position as a leader on medical research.
Meanwhile, The Australian reported (paywall) on a proposal by Professor Paul Glasziou and colleagues to set up a centre focused on tackling chronic waste in medical research ‒ in essence a centre focused on researching research. And the Courier Mail covered a call by the University of Queensland’s vice-chancellor Professor Peter Hoj to overhaul the Commonwealth Grants Scheme that funds student places at university, in order to boost the research power of the country’s top institutions.
State health systems have also been in the news, with hospital policies and practices around the country under the spotlight. In Western Australia, there was debate over the state government’s ban on ambulance ramping at three Perth hospitals, with the Opposition claiming it had failed, after it was revealed paramedics spent almost 350 hours at emergency departments last month.
Elective surgery had to be cancelled in South Australia, as the state experienced its worst flu season on record, sending admissions soaring. Professor Jon Karnon, writing on Croakey, asked what should have been done better to prevent and manage demand.
In Victoria, the CEO of one of Melbourne’s busiest public hospital networks resigned amid concerns about the service’s performance, after one hospital consistently failed some of the state government’s key performance indicators, according to the Age. In NSW, Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital has launched a major investigation into an incident in which an elderly man who collapsed in a toilet spent more than 20 hours lying on the floor unconscious before he was found by a cleaner.
Croakey meanwhile, looked at the issue of higher hospital mortality rates at weekends, but suggested that seven-day rosters were no panacea.
Teen’s troubling mental health
Hundreds of thousands of Australian children and teenagers are experiencing serious mental health issues, according to research reported in the Sydney Morning Herald which showed that as many as one in 10 children, some as young as four, have mental health disorders. The biggest survey into child and teenager mental health in Australia also found widespread self-harm as well as anxiety and depression.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Gittins warned that poor mental health was “dragging our economy down”.
To end on a musical note, the common practice of surgeons playing their favourite music in the operating theatre may be disruptive and surgeons should think twice about pressing the play button, according to a small study covered by BBC News.
But listening to music could help prevent epileptic seizures, according to US study that found the brains of patients with reacted differently to certain types of music than those without the disorder.
Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight: