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Oxfam says indigenous Australian health a scandal

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MELBOURNE, Mar 12 (Reuters) Australia is lagging behind comparable developed Commonwealth nations such as Canada and New Zealand in the health of its indigenous people, a report by charity group Oxfam said today.

''It's a national scandal,'' Oxfam Australia Executive Director Andrew Hewett told Reuters.

The Oxfam report said research showed Canada and New Zealand had made great strides in improving the health of their indigenous populations in areas such as life expectancy and infant mortality rates.

''Aboriginal life expectancy is still almost 20 years less than than that of non-indigenous Australians,'' Hewett said.

He said one in three indigenous Australian men could expect to die before the age of 55.

New Zealand Maori, indigenous Canadian First Nation people and Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders all had roughly the same life expectancy 30 years ago.

''However, while significant gains in life expectancy have been made in New Zealand and Canada, the current life expectancies of indigenous Australians remain low and are comparable to that of much poorer Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Guyana and Bangladesh,'' the report says.

The Oxfam report was released ahead of the March 15-26 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and accuses Australia of ''dropping the baton'' on indigenous health.

Aborigines have long been Australia's most disadvantaged group and were administered under flora and fauna laws until they were granted citizenship in 1967.

Australia's 458,500 Aborigines account for about 2.3 per cent of Australia's 20 million population. Many live in remote communities with little access to good housing, health or education services.

A 2005 report based on surveys conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that infant mortality rates were twice as high for Aborigines as for other Australians.

The incidence of diabetes was also twice as high, while incarceration rates, unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse are also disproportionately high among Aborigines.

The Oxfam report said there had been improvement in infant mortality rates for Aborigines but they were still close to double the rates found among indigenous populations in New Zealand and Canada.

Hewett said Australia, a stable and affluent nation with a record budget surplus, needed to commit more funding and resources to combat what he said was a ''dire level of need''.

''Underpinning it all is that we need the political will,'' Hewett said.

''We know the statistics, we know that resources are what's required and we know that the international experience exists.

What we need is a government that is prepared to give a bit of leadership and galvanise the whole community,'' he said.

Conservative Prime Minister John Howard has changed his government's approach to indigenous matters, abolishing the elected indigenous body responsible for spending on aboriginal services and focusing on what he calls practical measures to improve services and economic opportunities.

REUTERS DKS KP0922

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