Hidden genocide - A tragedy on a massive scale

Outraged Dr Mary Fortune was shocked by the terrible plight of Australia's Indigenous people after she spent three months as a locum in an Outback health centre for a new BBC TV show.

'In a developed country with so much wealth, it's incomprehensible that so little is being done for the Aboriginal people.' she wrote 'I can hear the siren voices "but we have tried". Well not hard enough. All you've done is "closed the gap" between your ears. - So please, in the name of humanity, go back and try again.'

Genocide - "My Note to Australian doctors attempting to "close the gap" in life expectancy between Aborigines and white Australians: If you open your eyes and use basic humanitarian skills, you will quickly realise you don't need a bloody medical degree to assess what the hell is going on here." Dr Fortune

Maggie Barry Sunday Mail - Scotland September 11th 2011

A Scottish Highland GP warned that Australia's Aborigines will be wiped out unless they get access to basic health care.

Outraged Mary Fortune was shocked by the terrible plight of the country's native people after she spent three months as locum in an Outback health centre for a new TV show.

Based at the Ord Valley Aboriginal Health Service Clinic in Kununurra, Dr Fortune was stunned to discover that one in 30 of the Aboriginal population suffers from rheumatic heart disease - a figure worse than anywhere in Africa.

But, shamefully, the disease is easily preventable with medication and treatment.

Aborigines are also 20 times more likely to die young than any other Australian.

Their life expectancy is 35 years less - they die, on average, aged just 45 - and there is a huge incidence of suicide.

Dr Fortune, 52, who was making a three-part series for the BBC, said: "I did not realise the severity of the Aboriginal health problem and that is the message I have come home with.

"Many of them are illiterate and they don't understand what their tablets are for.

"They think it's just a course they have to complete but sometimes it's a life-long thing - like warfarin for heart problems or insulin for diabetes.

"They don't realise the importance of the 'white man's tablets'.

"They are an ancient race who have not long come out of the desert but they have to be turned into modern men for today.

"The problem is they are finding it difficult to move on and I feel they are just getting left behind.

"If there is not some intervention soon, the Aboriginal people will just die out."

What infuriated Dr Fortune even more during her 10-week stint was that Kununurra is at the heart of the Kimberley region of western Australia - an area which drives the country's economy with its diamond mines, gold mines and oil.

Yet, the poverty of the Aborigines - to the point of starvation - is obscene.

Dr Fortune added: "It is an incredibly rich area but so many of the people are in a desperate situation.

"I am not a politician, I am a doctor, so I come at this from a humanitarian point of view and Australia has to see what is in its backyard.

"What the authorities have introduced already is quite clearly not working. I think perhaps they don't engage with the Aboriginal people to find out what they want.

"Someone suggested to me that the World Health Organisation needs to step in - what a thing to say about a country like Australia - but maybe that's what's needed.

"It's the hopeless feeling you get in your soul that healthcare workers and politicians are not doing something about this crisis.

"What I say may annoy some Australians but if you are not honest, things will never turn for the better."

Dr Fortune's work among the Aborigines was filmed for a powerful new series, her second stint filming a documentary helping others in Australia.

The clinic's chief executive, Glaswegian Graeme Cooper, recited the hard facts of their vital work.

The staff see 130 people a day, with priority given to the elderly and mothers with babies. Everyone else has to wait, sometimes for up to four hours.

The team cover a vast area - twice the size of Scotland - with only two full-time doctors, a part-timer and a locum.

They estimate the clinic needs a minimum of five doctors but to be able to see everyone who needs their care would require seven.

They also need 13 nurses, 13 Aboriginal health workers, seven drivers and five front desk staff - though the current staffing levels are nowhere near that.

One of Dr Fortune's patients put it to her succinctly - the Aborigines need water, power and housing.

And the appalling housing conditions anger Dr Fortune.

Up to 30 men, women and children live in compounds with only a small hut in the centre.

Children lie on the floor and elderly people are violently abused by younger - and often drunk - family members.

During the day, Kununurra is full of white people. At night, the Aborigines come out and make the streets their own.

But they are a forgotten people and, of the hundreds on the housing list, 98 per cent are from the indigenous population.

Dr Fortune said: "Kimberley is a most beautiful scenic area but underneath there is a deep sadness that tourists coming to sample the great outdoors just don't encounter."

During her time there, she met some great characters, such as Moses, a chronic alcoholic who promised to paint her a picture but would probably sell the canvas and paints for booze.

There was also Harry, whose wife took great delight in hitting him over the head with a frying pan.

Others such as Leah, pregnant at 15 and orphaned and suicidal by 16, appeared in Dr Fortune's surgery and then just as quickly disappeared.

Then there was Peggy Patrick, a legend among the Aborigines.

Homeless and in frail health, Peggy is one of the few indigenous people to have been awarded the Order of Australia - yet the country which honoured her was failing to look after her.

Dr Fortune said: "Peggy sadly lost her husband and then didn't have a house to live in. If she had been in the UK, a woman of such standing would have had a home with electricity, good sanitation and running water.

"Peggy was an amazing woman who understood what was going on.

"She wanted to work with the white people to improve the situation of the Aborigines - to make sure young people are educated which is a key factor - while still retaining their cultural identity.

"The Australians should revere someone like Peggy but instead they left her homeless."

Now back in Brora, Sutherland, Dr Fortune counts her blessings for the country where she and husband Alistair, 60, brought up their son Tom, now 15, and where he had a roof over his head, clean water, food and a bed to sleep in.

One of her last patients was a young boy of about nine who kept fainting because he was simply so hungry.

Dr Fortune will forever fly the flag for Australia's Aboriginal people whom she took to her heart during her stay and who quite clearly were just as enamoured by the quiet Scotswoman.

She said: "They are the most wonderful people and when they smile and laugh, it's infectious.

"They fill your heart up and they are so grateful for what you do.

"Part of me will always be with them."

Dr Fortune's Australian Casebook is screening on BBC2 Scotland in 3 programmes.
Director: Stuart Greig, Music: Kelman Greig.
A three-part series featuring Highland GP Doctor Mary Fortune as she returns to the Australian outback to work in an Aboriginal Clinic for three months. Just days into her placement, Mary is shocked by the appalling state of Aboriginal healthcare with many struck down with preventable third world diseases.Tracing the source of disease takes Mary to a nearby Aboriginal housing estate, or so called 'reserve' where she is appalled by the horrendous conditions.

An extract from Mary Fortune's Outback diary

A massive tragedy ... a genocide

August 12, 2010

I'm at Kununurra's Ord Valley Aboriginal Health Service clinic.

As I walk in, I know immediately that I've got another long, tough day ahead.

I can see 20 to 30 faces in the waiting room and a further five outside.

There is no appointment system, patients just turn up and wait to be seen. They will have a long wait today as the clinic is short of doctors.

I walk through the crowd and into my surgery and close the door. I need a few minutes to compose myself.

I try to find a few minutes to enter my thoughts in my diary.

My Note to Australian doctors attempting to "close the gap" in life expectancy between Aborigines and white Australians: If you open your eyes and use basic humanitarian skills, you will quickly realise you don't need a bloody medical degree to assess what the hell is going on here.

This is a tragedy on a massive scale - a genocide.

In a developed country with so much wealth, it's incomprehensible that so little is being done for the Aboriginal people.

I can hear the siren voices "but we have tried" . Well not hard enough. All you've done is "closed the gap" between your ears.

So please, in the name of humanity, go back and try again.