Australia’s outback dialysis clinic says Indigenous Voice can save lives

By Jill Gralow and Praveen Menon

ALICE SPRINGS (Reuters) – Three times a week, Rachel Napaltjarri, an Aboriginal woman suffering from end-stage kidney failure, receives lifesaving dialysis to cleanse her blood in a mobile medical unit in central Australia’s remote outback town of Alice Springs.

She’s been on dialysis for six years and will need it for the rest of her life unless she gets a kidney transplant.

Napaltjarri, 55, is one of dozens of Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people who are treated each day for kidney failure at remote dialysis clinics run by The Purple House, an Aboriginal community-led health service.

Headquartered in Alice Springs, it’s an example of how community involvement can improve outcomes for Australia’s Indigenous people, The Purple House CEO Sarah Brown told Reuters in an interview.

“We don’t have flashier machines or more experienced nurses,” she said. “The only difference is that people are running this place together, and they get to control what happens to them and they can help other communities out,” she said.

Purple House is evidence of how including the community can improve outcomes, Brown said. This is why she hopes the country will vote “Yes” in a referendum on Oct. 14 to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution and create an Aboriginal advisory body called the “Voice to Parliament”.

“Having policy where Aboriginal people have actually been able to advise and have some input on whether an idea is going to work or not is such a simple no-brainer but could have such a big impact,” Brown said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who make up about 3.8% of the population, are more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to have chronic kidney disease.

Brown explained it’s a disease of “poverty, dispossession and powerlessness”, from what was a seminomadic lifestyle, now becoming reliant on processed foods.

Kidney failure is a common cause of death among the Indigenous. But Brown said Purple House’s community-led model has helped central Australia go from having the worst dialysis survival rates in the country to the best.

The health service operates 19 remote clinics across remote communities in Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.

Treatment for kidney failure requires dialysis for five hours a day, thrice a week. For those needing the treatment it means families moving from their home to Alice Springs or Darwin for treatment.

Communities are left without elder leadership, families are broken and the culture connections are weakened. Patients also suffer from isolation and depression.

The Purple House is a home away from home for these Indigenous dialysis patients, Brown said, with a mission to help people keep their connection with Country and family despite the fact that they need treatment for end-stage renal failure.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon and Jill Gralow; Editing by Sonali Paul)

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