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Health situation of Indigenous Peoples is Grim; Action Urgently Needed
By CLARE NULLIS
GENEVA (November 26, 1999 10:24 p.m. EST) - Calling the situation "critical," the World Health Organization pledged Friday to do more on behalf of 300 million indigenous people, whose lives are cut short by disease and poverty and whose existence is increasingly threatened by environmental degradation.
Participants at the four-day meeting, convened by the U.N. health agency and attended by indigenous representatives, agreed that action was urgently needed.
"In many areas, health conditions are worsening, as demonstrated by rising rates of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, alcoholism, critical levels of infant mortality and decreasing life expectancies," said Wilton Littlechild, chief of Canada's Four Cree Nations.
The WHO coordinator on health and sustainable development, Eugenio Villar, said there would be further meetings to work out concrete policies.
Indigenous people die 10-20 years earlier than the overall population and infant mortality rates are up to three times higher than national averages, according to a WHO report presented to the meeting.
Malnutrition and diseases such as malaria and yellow fever are rampant. Substance abuse is rife, while rising suicide rates and domestic violence point to worsening mental health as traditional values break down.
The 98-page report examined the health situation of individual indigenous populations.
Arctic populations are dependent on harvesting natural resources and yet they are among the most exposed to industrial contaminants, it said, adding that incidence of disease and trauma had increased "several hundred percent" since 1970 among indigenous peoples in Russia.
American Indians in the United States and the 750,000 registered native people in Canada have higher rates of many diseases than the general populations.
Native peoples of Alaska are subject to poor housing, poor sewage disposal and lack of safe drinking water, and smoke and drink too much, the report said.
In Latin America, many indigenous people struggle against encroachment on their land, often with resulting violence. With little access to health services, death rates are "alarming," the report said.
Twenty percent of indigenous children born in Bolivia die before the age of 1 and 14 percent of the rest before going to school. In Mexico, 12 percent of indigenous children don't reach school age compared to 4.8 percent of children in the general population. The maternal mortality rate for indigenous women in Guatemala is 83 percent higher than average.
Environmental degradation threatens indigenous people in the Pacific, said the report. It cited hazardous waste dumping, nuclear testing, chemical burn-off, mining, logging and pressure on space from tourist development.
Maori in New Zealand have far more psychiatric problems, more accidents and more disease than others in that country. A similar pattern emerged among Australian Aborigines.
The health situation of millions of tribal people in India was abysmal, it said. In the state of Maharashtra, thousands of Korku people have died in the past few years from starvation.
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