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International Day of the World's Indigenous People Highlights Health Gaps

Washington, D.C., August 9, 2006 (PAHO)—On the International Day of the World's Indigenous People observed today, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) experts noted that 40 percent of indigenous people in the Americas still lack access to conventional health care services. Coupled with serious issues of inequity and discrimination, this situation poses a serious obstacle in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.

"There is in our societies a persistently high degree of stigma and discrimination" toward indigenous people, said Dr. Mirta Roses, director of the Pan American Health Organization. "This, coupled with a lack of true political participation in each country's development plans, makes the situation unsustainable. The permanent denial of fundamental rights has led to the marginalization of the indigenous population, leading to alarming poverty rates, lack of land, low earnings, high unemployment, high rates of illiteracy especially among women, high rates of school dropouts, and an epidemiological profile with high rates of illnesses and premature death where preventable causes are predominant," Roses said. "The communities and municipalities with the highest percentage of indigenous population are those furthest from the goals set by the Millennium Declaration."

The International Day of the World's Indigenous People was decided by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 to highlight and reflect on the realities faced by millions of indigenous in all continents. In the Americas, some 45 million indigenous people belonging to over 400 ethnic groups in 24 countries are the focus of continuing health initiatives carried out by PAHO and its Member States. In 2004, the General Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, with the goal of "strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development, by means of action-oriented programs and specific projects, increase technical assistance, and relevant standard-setting activities".

Dr. Rocio Rojas, PAHO's regional advisor on Health of Indigenous People, said there have been advances because of actions developed by PAHO and counties, but "existing gaps in the health sector and the severity of an extraordinarily complex reality is an important reminder to not lose focus or momentum in our work."

While average mortality rates across the Region have decreased in recent years, health indicators for indigenous peoples (where available) demonstrate that urgent action is needed. A PAHO document notes, "Traditionally, indigenous populations have suffered from disproportionately high rates of maternal and infant mortalities, malnutrition, and infectious diseases. However, as these populations become more mobile, less isolated, increasingly urban, and located in border areas, chronic disease and issues such as use of drugs and alcohol, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, and loss of influence of traditional health practices have become increasingly important."

According to the PAHO document, "cultural barriers present the most complicated challenge since there is little understanding of the social and cultural factors deriving from the knowledge, attitudes, and practices in health of the indigenous peoples. The bias towards Western medicine and intervention can be offensive or inappropriate for practitioners of traditional medicine. Finding health staff that speaks and understands indigenous languages is difficult, and poor communication between providers and clients at all levels compromises access to quality care. Moreover, indigenous people are often discriminated against in health centers by no indigenous staff; and both fear and distrust caused by the attitudes and behaviors of health care workers prevent indigenous people from seeking the health care they need. For example, traditional beliefs and practices related to child birth are frequently not respected in institutional settings."

 Additional Information

PAHO Page: Health of Indigenous Peoples

Fact Sheet: Gender, Equity and Indigenous Women's Health in the Americas
( PDF, 31.6KB)

PAHO, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and raise the quality of life of their peoples. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.

For more information please contact , PAHO, Public Information, 202-974-3459.