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The Heart Foundation, Supporting Australia’s First Nations communities

With new support from the Heart Foundation, Australia’s First Nations communities are being empowered to address a deadly form of heart disease that has been eradicated in all other developed countries in the world.

Skin sores and scabies commonly afflict children in remote communities where crowded housing and access to healthy water supplies are problems. Scabies is known as a significant contributor to the pathway that leads to acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and rheumatic heart disease (RHD). In Australia, two First Nations people die from RHD each week.

However, local communities are working to break the cycle.

First Nations-owned Aboriginal Investment Group launched a community laundry several years ago in Barunga, almost 400 kilometres from Darwin, with four washers and four dryers packed into a small shipping container.

Reports from the laundry suggest the combination of hot water, drying, detergent, and hydrogen peroxide has cut the incidence of scabies by about 60 per cent, prompting the launch of more remote laundries across the Northern Territory. Each free service also delivers an economic benefit by employing five local community members.

This is empowering the local community to create lasting change, according to Peter Wordsworth, a long term RHD nurse in the Barunga community.

“As locals, the laundry staff can talk to their people one-on-one about heart health and healthy skin without offending anybody – it just makes such a huge difference,” he recently said.

The Heart Foundation is now turbocharging the initiative through its Champions4Change program, which was designed by First Nations Heart Health Lead and senior Noongar woman Vicki Wade.

It is a culturally safe program led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities that allows people with lived experience of RHD and ARF to help design and deliver education and awareness programs within their communities.

The Albert George and Nancy Caroline Youngman Trust, which is managed by Equity Trustees, contributes towards the Champions4Change program.

Heart Foundation CEO David Lloyd maintains that putting a laundry service in every community that wants one would pave the way to eliminate RHD in Australia.

“By early next decade we could say we were part of a national effort to remove rheumatic heart disease from these communities once and for all.”

Incorporating the knowledge, perspectives and experiences of people living with RHD is a critical factor in eradicating the disease, especially given Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live with one of the highest per capita burdens of RHD in the world.

The national RHD Endgame Strategy, which is supported by 25 health and research organisations including the Heart Foundation, aims to eliminate RHD in Australia by 2031. The strategy is estimated to prevent 663 deaths and save the health care system $188 million within a decade.

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