Tariana Turia. Photo by NZPA.
This week's report into the health of Maori children
tells a depressingly familiar tale: as in statistics for
educational achievement and employment rates, the disparities
between Maori and the rest of the population are unacceptably
wide, with Maori at the bottom of the heap; conversely they
feature prominently and well above other New Zealand
ethnicities for crime and punishment. What the latest report
indicates is just how early on the disadvantages begin to
The report, "The Health of Maori Children and Young People
with Chronic Conditions and Disabilities in New Zealand", is
the first in a series commissioned by the Ministry of Health
and produced by the New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology
Service at the University of Otago. It is being billed as the
first report to provide "a comprehensive picture of
disability and chronic conditions in Maori children and young
people, reinforcing the importance of prevention, primary
care and disability support services for Maori children and
Even by the standards to which the country has become
accustomed, the evidence it provides of how poorly young
Maori fare in relation to certain debilitating diseases and
conditions is shocking.
The research on which the report is based, for instance,
found hospital admissions for young Maori (aged under 24) for
rheumatic fever were 23 times higher than non-Maori
admissions. That is a disgraceful statistic and is clearly
evidence of deep-seated structural inequalities in New
Zealand society. More directly, it is further evidence of the
correlation between factors such as poor housing, childhood
poverty and chronic disease.
Rheumatic fever is a delayed inflammatory reaction that
develops in response to a streptococcal throat infection. It
mainly affects children between 5 and 14 years old and a bad
case can lead to permanent heart damage - rheumatic heart
disease is a progressive condition resulting in damage,
scarring and deformities of the heart valves. Equally,
rheumatic fever can affect the joints, brain, skin or
It is a serious disease and the tragedy highlighted by this
research is the degree of disconnect between sections of the
- mainly Maori - population and the state health services. It
is not an especially difficult disease to diagnose or treat.
The former can be achieved by routine swabs for "strep"
throat, and the latter by antibiotics, occasionally
anti-inflammatory drugs and bed-rest.
Prevention is, of course, eminently more satisfactory than
cure, and addressing factors such as poor quality housing -
cold and damp - overcrowding, poor nutrition, and lack of
access to primary health care is key to getting on top of the
Alleviating poverty, in particular child poverty, will go a
long way to dealing with it. The age-old and often
contentious question is how?
This week, Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills announced
the formation of a group of experts to find solutions to
child poverty. Another group, another set of reports?
In what practical manner will this help alleviate what is by
now a well-recognised problem?
Dr Wills' group comprises a number of academics, including
Prof Mark Henaghan, Dean of Law at the University of Otago,
and Prof Richie Poulton, director of the Dunedin
Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit; it
includes sociologists, educationists, accountants, policy
analysts, doctors, business lobbyists and charity workers. It
is not short of intellectual or analytical firepower.
Its conclusions and recommendations will be presented to the
Government by the end of the year in time to feed into the
ministerial committee on poverty - which met for the first
time earlier this month. Part of the confidence and supply
agreement between National and the Maori Party, the poverty
committee is made up of Bill English and Tariana Turia as
well as the ministers of health, education, social
development, housing and Maori affairs.
On its announcement in December last year, Mr English said
its focus would be on getting the best results from the
hundred of millions of dollars being spent on social service
delivery. It would not be about "hand-wringing or writing
strategies". It is to be hoped that will indeed be the case.