Millennium development goals ignore health of indigenous people worldwide

EMBARGO: 00:01H (London time) Friday May 26, 2006. In North America the embargo lifts at 18:30H ET Thursday May 25, 2006.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as they stand today, will allow whole populations of indigenous people to disappear, warn the authors of a paper in The Lancet's series on indigenous health, which begins this week. Indigenous people are 'invisible' in all the benchmarks currently proposed in the MDGs, state the researchers.

Indigenous people, who make up around 6% of the world's population, hold valuable knowledge about our environment and its medicines. However, as the series reveals, their health is considerably poorer than their non-indigenous counterparts in numerous areas. Life expectancy is substantially lower for indigenous people, and disparities exist in rates of infectious diseases, heart disease, and diabetes. Access to health services and health education is often worse for indigenous peoples, while even in wealthy countries such as Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia, suicides, alcohol, and drug-related problems are common in indigenous communities. For isolated indigenous peoples in Asia, Latin America, and Africa the situation is even more severe: routinely they face expulsion from their lands, human rights abuses, the introduction of 'new' diseases, and exploitation of the natural resources they have protected.

In their paper 'Disappearing, displaced, and undervalued: a call to action for Indigenous health worldwide' researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are calling for greater respect for the views of indigenous peoples in all research and policies affecting them. They say that that major international policies like the MDGs encourage targets to maximise health benefits for the majority, ignoring health issues facing minority groups, such as indigenous communities.

"…the Millennium Development Goals as they stand today could be achieved even while whole populations of Indigenous peoples disappear. Yet indigenous peoples are affected by all the goals related to hunger, education, and ill health," states lead author Carolyn Stephens from LSHTM. "Indigenous people might continue to be ignored by international policy because they do not fit into the lens of utilitarianism that has predominated in the creation and action of health policy," she adds.

Without action to improve the survival of indigenous communities the authors warn that the health of non-indigenous populations may also suffer. Unique knowledge about the benefits of the ecosystem for health and medicine could be lost forever if these communities disappear.

In a Comment to launch the series Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, writes: "Perhaps the most urgent call of all is to remove the cloak of invisibility from the shoulders of indigenous peoples – not only to reflect their diversity and heritage, but also to reflect on their cultural fragility and to protect and strengthen their essential, foundational place in human society."

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Contact: Dr Carolyn Stephens, Public and Environmental Health Research Unit, Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, WC1E 7HT, UK. carolyn.stephens@lshtm.ac.uk via the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine press office T) 020 7927 2073.

The Lancet press office T) +44 (0) 207 424 4949/4249 pressoffice@lancet.com

Notes to editors
Four papers form the Lancet series. Paper 1, published in this week's issue, focuses on the health issues affecting indigenous people in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific. Paper 2 looks at indigenous health in Latin America and the Caribbean, while paper 3 assesses the health of indigenous communities in Africa. Paper 4 is the call to action. The embargo for the whole series is 00:01H (London time) Friday May 26, 2006.

Six original research papers drawing attention to the predicaments faced by indigenous people accompany the series. The first on the health disparities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal infants is published this week.

The Lancet website will have testimonies from indigenous communities around the world to accompany the series. Visit www.thelancet.com


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