STORY | “Caught in the Gap: Aboriginal Kidney Disease in Rural Australia”
The small town of Laverton is nestled on the edge of the Great Victorian Desert in a remote area of Western Australia known as the Goldfields. Surrounded by red dirt, sprawling vistas, and the ever-present kangaroo, Laverton could easily fit a tourist’s stereotype of a typical Australian Outback town. Like many Outback towns, Laverton has seen its ups and downs since its establishment in 1900. These rises and falls usually coincide with the successes or failures of the multiple gold, nickel, and rare earth mineral mines that pockmark the landscape surrounding the town.
As the starting point of the ‘Outback Way’—a 3,600 kilometer, mostly unpaved road that runs through the heart of Australia—Laverton sees plenty of tourists pass through town on their way to Alice Springs and Uluru, one of Australia’s most iconic natural landmarks. However, amongst such beauty also lies a growing problem that isn’t nearly as visible as the surrounding idyllic landscape these visitors will soon pass through.
Indigenous Australians living in remote Outback regions like Laverton are currently suffering from what is known as the “Aboriginal Health Gap”—an ever increasing health disparity between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. From higher mortality rates to high instances of cancer and other diseases, Aboriginal Australians are falling behind their non-aboriginal counterparts in a range of health criteria. As a result, Aboriginal males are expected to live around 11.5 years less than non-indigenous males and Aboriginal females are expected to live almost 10 years less.
One of the bigger contributors to this health gap is also one of the most preventable— Type II diabetes. The Australian Government estimates that diabetes prevalence amongst Aboriginal Australians is more than double that of Non-Indigenous Australians. In more remote areas like Laverton, the rate of aboriginal diabetes is between 5 and 10 times higher than the general community. This has resulted in Indigenous Australians having the fourth highest rate of diabetes in the world.
The diabetes epidemic is an all-encompassing issue with no one specific cause and no specific solution. A host of issues are blamed for the high rates of kidney disease including genetics, access to fresh fruit and vegetables in the desert, education levels, poverty, and the loss of traditional ways of life. However, the solution to these problems doesn’t require a small change; it requires an entire change of habit and lifestyle on the part of the individual. One fact does remains clear though—the problem is not getting better.
Laverton, like many remote communities, is not immune to this growing national issue. Of the town’s 300 residents, over a third are Aboriginal and among this Indigenous population, it is estimated that one in three have diabetes or some form of kidney disease. In one doctor’s words, health conditions amongst aboriginal people in the western desert are, at times, “third world.”
Faced with these inequalities, Indigenous Australians living in Laverton and other remote parts of the country are increasingly finding themselves “caught in the gap.”