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Australia fears swine flu hitting Aborigines

/ Source: The Associated Press

The government must make a greater effort to protect vulnerable Aboriginal communities from swine flu, a medical advocate said Wednesday after an indigenous Australian from a remote, impoverished town became the country's first swine-flu-related death.

Many Aborigines live in unhygienic Outback townships with overcrowded ramshackle housing and no running water. Such communities are rife with chronic illnesses, have limited medical services and large numbers of children who are particularly susceptible to the virus.

The Northern Territory, a remote frontier with Australia's highest proportion of Aborigines, on Wednesday recorded the nation's highest swine flu infection rate per capita — 35 cases per 100,000 people.

"We all know and we all fear that if this particular flu gets into remote communities and takes a very strong hold, then there will be many deaths," leading doctors' advocate Paul Bauert told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The government should send as many medical professionals as possible into the Outback to contain the virus in these remote townships where Aborigines live, said Bauert, Northern Territory branch president of the Australian Medical Association.

A 26-year-old Aboriginal man became Australia's first swine-flu related death on Friday.

The man — who suffered from chronic heart, lung and kidney problems before he contracted the virus — came from a remote desert community of 300 people close to the Northern Territory.

Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon said Tuesday that federal and state authorities were taking steps to ensure that Outback Aboriginal communities had adequate supplies of antiviral medication.

"We know many of the chronic diseases that they suffer from are indicators that swine flu may actually hit them harder than some others in the community," Roxon said.

Aborigines are the poorest minority in Australia and make up only 2.5 percent of Australia's 22 million people. They account for 30 percent of the Northern Territory's population.

Australia's second and third swine flu-related fatalities occurred on Saturday and Tuesday in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria state, where half of the nation's 2,873 infections have been reported. Authorities are not certain in any case that swine flu was the cause of death. Victoria's infection rate is 26 cases per 100,000 people.