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"A great deal of sickness": Introduced diseases among the Aboriginal people of colonial Southeast Australia
Previous palaeopathological studies have sought to build up a picture of Australian Aboriginal health before European settlement in 1788 and epidemiological studies of Aboriginal health in the twentieth century are now legion. But, despite a growing body of literature on Aboriginal history set in the intervening colonial period, our knowledge of Aboriginal health following European colonisation remains understudied. This thesis is a contribution to filling that gap through an examination of documentary and skeletal evidence in the changing bio-chemical situation experienced by Aboriginal populations of Southeast Australia from 1788 to 1900. This thesis examines one of the major biological components of this change – disease that were introduced unto Australian Aboriginal populations during the process of colonisation. The epidemiology, timing, diffusion of diseases are considered with specific attention given to infectious and respiratory diseases that were responsible for causing major epidemics of morbidity and mortality. The medical model for the contact period in the late 18th and 19th centuries is proposed. This model considers three major stages in the disease environment of Aboriginal populations in Southeast Australia; a pre-contact stage with endemic pathogens causing chronic diseases and limited epidemics, an early contact stage where introduced exotic human diseases cause severe epidemics of infectious and respiratory diseases among Aboriginal populations, and a third stage where remaining Aboriginal populations were institutionalised on government and mission settlements and were subjected to a high level of morbidity and mortality form the introduced diseases. The major epidemic diseases during the early stage were smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, influenza, and measles. Each of these diseases was responsible for excessive morbidity and mortality. During the period of institutionalisation infectious and respiratory diseases were responsible for over 50% of recorded deaths on 8 separate Aboriginal settlements in Southeast Australia. The major diseases recorded as causes of death were tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, diarrhoea and dysentery. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian infant mortality rates are calculated to provide an indicator to compare the state of health of the two populations. Aboriginal rates were high when compared to the non-Aboriginal populations of Victoria and South Australia. The rates reveal a substantial health differential between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations. Aboriginal infant mortality improved into the latter quarter of the twentieth century but the corresponding improvement in non-Aboriginal infant mortality has been at a much higher rate. The gap between the health status of each has widened rather than narrowed over the last one hundred years.