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Bridging the Gap Foundation: Helping Indigenous communities tackle rates of childhood ear disease

In a nation where equitable access to health care is fundamental, one fact that can’t be disputed is the unseen and rarely reported health crisis facing Indigenous populations.

However, one organisation is working at the grassroots level to support Indigenous access to health and education services. A registered charity, Bridging the Gap Foundation (BTGF) raises funds for projects that aim to directly address the nine-year gap in average life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

While many Australians are unaware of this alarming figure, it is a driving motivation for BTGF, as it seeks to shine a light on the inequalities experienced by Indigenous Australians and ensure Indigenous community members have access to the same opportunities as every other Australian.

By consulting and collaborating with remote Indigenous communities, BTGF seeks to deliver sustainable and community-led solutions that improve health and education outcomes.

There is still a long way to go, but BTGF is making a positive and lasting impact on the lives of community members, and in particular, working to provide meaningful opportunities for Indigenous youth.

The buck stops ear

One of BTGF’s major focus areas is ear health. It’s a little-known fact that Australia’s Indigenous populations, especially those in rural and remote communities, are particularly susceptible to ear disease, with this issue particularly prevalent amongst children.

Ninety per cent of Indigenous children in remote areas of the Northern Territory currently suffer some form of otitis media, a disease that results from inflammation and/or infection of the middle ear, causing hearing loss.

The disease has been found to persist for years in up to 70 per cent of Indigenous children, with nearly 30 per cent developing chronic ruptured eardrums, the most severe form of the disease which causes hearing loss classified as disabling by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Notably, these rates are the highest reported in the world – a factor that directly contributes to life-long health and educational disadvantage amongst Indigenous populations, as well as limited employment opportunities.

Preventing chronic ear infections can therefore contribute to closing the aforementioned nine-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

According to BTGF CEO Sharon Mulholland AM, raising funds for ear health programs will help tackle a major issue for the country’s Indigenous communities.

“The funds we raise at Bridging the Gap assist us in accurately identifying and ultimately treating a range of ear health issues from a young age, so we can enable Indigenous children to begin their lives with good hearing.

“Sadly, when kids experience hearing loss in childhood, it can affect their speech and language development and may lead to behavioural problems, disengagement with school, limited employment options and increased contact with the criminal justice system.

“As it stands, by the time many Indigenous youth reach adulthood, it can be too late to treat ear health issues that have progressed to the point of moderate, severe or profound hearing impairment, leading to greater inequality in educational, employment and health outcomes compared to people with no measured hearing impairment.

“This just confirms the absolute importance of early intervention, and resourcing that empowers Indigenous people to assist in addressing debilitating ear disease in their own communities.”

BTGF is appealing to the Australian community to assist in raising funds for Indigenous ear health education and the early detection and treatment of otitis media.

Donations received by BTGF are tax deductible and fund a number of initiatives, including the training of Indigenous ear health facilitators in remote communities, and the purchase of mobile testing equipment to support their work.

This training and equipment empowers Indigenous Australians to assist in addressing debilitating ear diseases in their own communities, such as Wurrumiyanga and Pirlangimpi in the Tiwi Islands.

Leading experts have their say

To bring more attention to the cause, BTGF has enlisted the support of celebrated ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon, Professor Kelvin Kong, who is a proud Worimi man and the first Indigenous fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS).

According to Professor Kong, BTGF’s work in the field of ear health directly benefits communities on the ground and is making real change in the lives of Indigenous kids.

“The funds that Bridging the Gap is raising for community-based action on ear and hearing health is a game-changer for our mob,” Professor Kong said.

“We know that ear and hearing health is critical to overall health and quality of life, and at present, the ear disease rates we’re seeing within our mob are horrific, with disease that is occurring earlier and longer, and which has more profound outcomes.

“Tellingly, WHO says there is a public health emergency when four per cent of a population suffer chronic suppurative otitis media, or perforated eardrums - but in remote Indigenous communities, this can range from 40 per cent right up to 85 per cent.

“It’s appalling that we live in this dichotomy where a first world country has a third world health statistic - and that’s why it’s vital we put capacity back in our community’s hands to drive change on the issue of ear health.”

Professor Kong has been joined by Professor Amanda Leach AM, from the Menzies School of Health Research, who has also thrown her support behind the BTGF campaign.

According to Professor Leach, it is possible to detect and successfully treat common ear infections in Indigenous children before they turn into lifelong problems.

“Many infections of the ear are painful, and often accompany a cold or flu – but typically, Indigenous children do not present with ear pain, so ear problems are not identified by parents or health staff and go untreated, leading to ongoing and sometimes profound hearing loss,” Professor Leach said.

“By training community members as ear health facilitators, and giving them the skills to use new compact technology to regularly check and detect ear and hearing problems, families and health services can access timely and culturally appropriate expertise.

“This allows communities to design and implement a ‘Detection - Treatment - Follow Up’ model that ensures children don’t lose crucial time for speech and language development in their early years.

“Once treated and regularly checked, these children can more successfully participate in early and further learning and education, hear without difficulty at home and at school, and embark on a path to a healthier future.”

A way forward

According to Ms Mulholland, once a program of early and regular assessments is implemented, the successful treatment of ear disease usually involves the use of antibiotics.

“For persistent otitis media with effusion (OME) in high-risk children, antibiotics can make a difference in a very short space of time,” she said.

“In some cases, Azithromycin can be prescribed for acute otitis media (AOM), especially where treatment programs are difficult or there is no access to refrigeration.

“In the worst scenarios, surgical referral can be required for chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) at the time of diagnosis, which is where experts such as Professor Kong play such a vital role.

“Knowledge and education is the key – and this is why we’re so committed to working alongside and with whole communities, including council, school, clinic and health services, women’s and family groups, in order to drive positive outcomes.”

BTGF’s ear health appeal, which directly aligns with BTGF’s mission to improve and advance the lives of Indigenous Australians through projects that increase their health and education opportunities and outcomes, is now seeking tax-deductible donations.

Donations can be made online, via bank transfer or PayPal, and all donors are automatically sent a receipt with their deductible gift recipient (DGR) certificate.


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