Estimates paint a depressing picture of health care, quality-of-life, and life expectancy among indigenous people worldwide. Figures depict minority cultures that suffer higher rates of infant mortality, preventable blindness, and tuberculosis. What is an indigenous people group, and what are their specific health care challenges? More importantly, what is the rest of the world doing to help?
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Indigenous peoples are defined as groups of people who were in existence prior to a period of colonization or settlement by foreigners. Examples include First Nations tribes in Canada and New Zealand’s Maori people whose lands were colonized by Europeans only after these tribal groups had already developed social ideals, art, religion, and ways of governing themselves. Remote cultures such as these share a unique language, set of beliefs, strong connection to their natural world, and distinct identity that remains separate from the main population demographic living in developed centers of the same country. Figures show that there are more than 370 million indigenous people living in more than 70 countries around the world.
Such societies also suffer from poorer health when compared with dominant, developed societies worldwide. There are more cases of disability, quality-of-life is lower, and people tend to die younger than the majority population. This is particularly true among women who are treated as second-class citizens within their own cultures: They’re often denied educations, money, and land. Women feel more significant effects from warfare and disaster. For men and women, access to medicine and treatment is extremely limited.
Indigenous peoples do maintain systems of health care, but these are not as effective as Western medicine in many instances. About 80% of people in developing countries are still relying on traditional forms of treatment, prevention, and health maintenance that incorporate plant, mineral, and animal remedies while trusting in spiritual sources of power to heal. They trust in manual methods of care as well as exercises to promote good health. Many of these systems are ancient and work alone or in combination, but statistics show that modern medicine is more effective in certain situations.
For example, the rate of infant mortality in Latin America is 60% higher for indigenous than nonindigenous cultures, a substantial figure. One factor that influences these numbers is whether or not the mother receives prenatal care. Among minority groups in Vietnam, 60% of childbirths take place without prenatal care. Many deaths and injuries related to childbirth could be prevented if this care were available.
There are just over 23 million people in Australia according to census reports, and the country’s Diabetes researchers estimate that 1.7M of those people suffer from Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, which is about 7% of the general population. In some parts of Australia, however, diabetes affects about one-quarter of their aboriginal people, a huge imbalance.
Consider the issue of clean drinking water. Infections are common in remote villages where there is a lack of potable water. This places such communities at a double disadvantage: Compared with their counterparts in developed communities, they are twice as likely to become sick but far less likely to receive care.
Developed countries worldwide have virtually eradicated tuberculosis among their people. Entire generations of children never even hear about the disease. Indigenous societies, however, still see many instances of the disease, and many men, women, and children die of tuberculosis annually. The number of cases globally was 9.6 million in 2014 with 1.5 million deaths that same year.
Indigenous cultures are vulnerable to tuberculosis because they have little or no access to health care. There are many barriers, such as differences in culture and language that make it difficult for workers to gain entry into communities. Discrimination is rife. Remoteness from urban areas is a problem, sometimes a seasonal one, perhaps an all-year issue. Poverty creates another barrier: having too little money to afford medication or to travel to places where medication can be administered.
Accessibility is considered the most important point for medical professionals trying to prevent and treat tuberculosis amid these distinct population groups. They are so far removed from dominant societies geographically and culturally that even finding someone in the health care profession who speaks their language is a challenge. Agencies are developing a bank of knowledge with regard to the problem to analyze and assess these indigenous groups and their current access to treatment and care. This resource helps to educate such groups more effectively about tuberculosis prevention, recognition, and treatment.
A number of organizations, both within and outside of governments, have united to attack the particular problem of tuberculosis around the world. Their aims include getting medicine to the people, creating more affordable care, and educating indigenous people about the disease.
More organizations are rising to tackle other health care issues as well. One such group, known as Sight Savers, is looking at preventable blindness. Statistics suggest that more than three-quarters of the time, sight loss is preventable among indigenous people or their cases can be cured if intervention is available. The goal of Barefoot Doctors is to reach into remote societies and train individuals to offer limited medical support and first-aid treatment to their own people. The aim is to create trusted health care workers on the inside of these villages who will combine Western techniques with some traditional methods. This is a more sensitive way to bring about change where people fear and mistrust Western ways.
Within all of these programs, professionals are trying to strike a balance between improving quality-of-life and respecting long-held beliefs. The work takes time because these professionals, too, must be educated and gain the trust of social groups. Members of these organizations must take time to learn about unfamiliar cultures, overcome language barriers, develop empathy, and recognize areas of spiritual significance so they can approach healthcare problems effectively but respectfully. While their ultimate goal is to improve health and quality of life for these people, a measured approach will lead to greater success in the long run.