The Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet (HealthInfoNet) website includes an Environmental Health Portal that provides free up-to-date information on environmental health, including climate change, to inform practice, policy, and research. The Portal content, which is easy to access on mobile phones, tablets and other devices, is written in ‘plain language’, making it more accessible to Indigenous Environmental Health Practitioners from diverse educational backgrounds and for those who live in remote areas who may speak English as a second or third language. It assists these practitioners in their vital work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to improve health outcomes.
The need for evidence for Indigenous Environmental Health Practitioners was recognised by the enHealth Council’s Working Group for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Health. The Western Australian Department of Health’s Environmental Health Directorate identified the HealthInfoNet as the most appropriate vehicle for providing a comprehensive, up-to-date evidence base for Indigenous environmental health and making it readily accessible via the internet.
Environmental health focuses on the physical, chemical, biological and social factors that affect people within their surroundings. The environments in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live have a significant impact on their health. Examples of the types of health problems associated with the environment include respiratory, cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancers and skin infections. Diseases can be spread as a result of overcrowding, pollution and poor animal management; also gastrointestinal illnesses can be due to poor water quality, contaminated food or poor hygiene.
In 2018 the HealthInfoNet added a dedicated climate change section to the Portal, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are especially vulnerable. It delivers important knowledge about the impacts of climate change on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The main navigational points of the climate change section include key facts, policies and strategies, programs and projects, resources, publications and organisations.
Climate change refers to a change in weather patterns because of a rise in the earth’s temperature. Some of this change is natural, but some changes in climate have also been caused by human actions, such as the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal). Climate change has a negative impact on:
- the Australian coastline (rising sea levels and potential flooding);
- cities and other built environments;
- farming (an increase in temperature and droughts);
- water (rainfall levels are decreasing);
- natural ecosystems (increases in non-native species and decreases in native species);
- health and wellbeing (increased risk of injury, disease and death due to rising temperatures); and
- extreme weather events such as floods and fires.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in remote parts of Australia, increases in temperature will reduce the amount of bush tucker and other native foods available. For people in coastal areas, rises in sea levels may force people off their land. This is especially concerning considering the connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to their Country, and may result in poor mental health and other social issues. Extreme weather events such as cyclones and floods will affect the infrastructure in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and these communities may be cut-off from services for long periods of time.
By providing information about environmental health, the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet continues in its aim to contribute to ‘closing the gap’ in health between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians by making knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, readily available to the workforce.