Childhood anaemia imposes a lifelong handicap.
Babies and small children with pronounced anaemia are listless and weak and don’t engage as well as healthy infants. They’re unusually susceptible to infections, so they pick up every bug that’s going; then they take longer to recover.
At its worst, anaemia can cause permanent cognitive impairment and serious developmental delays that make learning at school difficult. In tiny babies it can be disastrous. In fact, anaemia – especially in childhood – is the single most serious global health problem and the second most common cause of disability. It affects some 1.62 billion people around the world.
Here at home, it affects our Aboriginal children disproportionately and catastrophically. Of the Northern Territory’s (NT) Aboriginal children aged six to twelve months, up to four in ten are suffering from anaemia. Among non-Aboriginal children, the rate is less than one in ten. It doesn’t take a medical degree to understand, therefore, that efforts to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians will be undermined by anaemia for as long as it continues at its current rate. Equally, it’s obvious that sickly, lethargic, cognitively impaired children will struggle in education, from the very start and forever. Childhood anaemia imposes a lifelong handicap.
That this is the particular lot of Aboriginal children represents an injustice in need of urgent redress. The trouble is, no-one is quite sure why anaemia occurs among Aboriginal infants at the rate it does. It’s unlikely to be diet, since most anaemic babies are pre-solids. It might be because of anaemia in pregnancy, which affects 15% of the NT’s Aboriginal mothers. But that’s another unknown. And as to its development toll, its exact impact on achieving the key milestones of infancy, how premature birth and low birth weight factors, the social determinants in which childhood anaemia is situated, not close to enough is understood.