University of Western Australia: HEAL network to tackle health impacts of climate change

Teams from the Telethon Kids Institute and The University of Western Australia will lead the WA arm of a transformational national research network grounded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and wisdom that will work to help protect Australians from the health impacts of climate change.

Announced today by Health Minister, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, the Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) Network will bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and science together with western science to address environmental change and its impacts on health.

The $10 million HEAL Network – led by the Australian National University (ANU) and funded over five years through the National Health and Medical Research Council – will see ‘communities of practice’ join forces all over Australia to address climate-related challenges including urban health, bushfires, air, soil and water pollution, food security, biosecurity, heatwaves and other extreme events.

The communities of practice – including five in WA – will see representatives from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities and community organisations, researchers, policymakers, service providers and other stakeholders work together to identify and catalyse health research to provide the evidence, capability and tools needed to address these issues.

Telethon Kids Institute Aboriginal Health researcher Dr Brad Farrant, who is the regional lead for HEAL in Western Australia, said the network would provide a platform to link and consolidate what until now had often been siloed efforts by researchers and individuals all over Australia.

“Many people in many fields across Australia have long recognised the increasing need to understand and come up with solutions for the health impacts we know will come with climate change.

“This network will bring together and support a whole lot of grassroots work that is already happening in Perth and across WA and the rest of the country.”

Dr Brad Farrant
The communities of practice will focus on identifying community priorities for research and translating the findings of this research into changes to policy and services that:

Protect and improve community health – especially for at-risk groups and people in regions and communities disproportionately impacted by environmental and climate change;
Strengthen health system resilience, preparedness and responsiveness to changing environmental conditions and related diseases, and reduce the health system’s environmental impact;
Reduce inequities and inequalities within and across communities and generations.
“The HEAL Network has been designed to be truly transformational,” Dr Farrant said. “Critically, it is grounded in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, science, knowledge and wisdom and has community engagement, participation and co-design at its core.

Aunty Mara West, Yamatji Elder and Operations Manager of the Kulunga Aboriginal Unit at Telethon Kids Institute, said Aboriginal people were in a unique position to help mitigate the impacts of global warming.

“Climate change is with us whether we like it or not,” Aunty Mara said. “Like many countries, Australia faces hotter summers, more droughts, rising tides and a significant impact on its ecology.

“Indigenous communities will bear the brunt even though we have not been the instigators of big industries that contribute to pollution and the massive environmental changes that we see around us.

“We all need to work together as we will all be impacted in some way. Indigenous peoples’ connection to country and their cultural knowledge means that we are in a unique position to share that knowledge to work with others to mitigate global warming. Hopefully this week’s HEAL Conference and the HEAL Network will be a catalyst to share and work together, because it’s the right thing to do.”

The network already comprises more than 100 people including researchers from dozens of tertiary and other institutions across Australia including, in WA, Telethon Kids Institute, UWA, Curtin University and Murdoch University.

Telethon Kids Institute researchers will include Dr Farrant, Aboriginal Elder/Co-researcher Uncle Noel Nannup, Professor Susan Prescott, Associate Professor Alex Larcombe, and Dr Shelley Gorman.

UWA researchers will include UWA Senior Honorary Research Fellow Professor Carmen Lawrence, who will Chair the network’s Independent Advisory Board, Professor of Paediatrics, Peter Le Souëf, Professor Nanthi Bolan from the UWA School of Agriculture and the Environment, and Dr Caitlin Wyrwoll from the School of Human Sciences.

Dr Wyrwoll said HEAL was a fantastic opportunity for UWA to be part of a large, diverse network addressing the health impacts of climate change.

“UWA will be co-leading the research themes ‘Food, Soil, and Water Security’ and ‘At-risk Populations and Life Course Solutions’ while also contributing to other components including ‘Science Communication’, ‘Health Systems’, and ‘Urban Health’,” Dr Wyrwoll said.

“The capacity to draw in perspectives from lived experience, organisations, researchers, and policymakers will have substantial impact in addressing the health issues ahead of us due to environmental change.”

Among its activities, the HEAL Network plans to develop a digital knowledge-action hub – the HEAL Observatory – to support the health sector by providing data and tools that will inform local, state and national decision-making.

Other priority topic areas include a focus on children and mothers and the impacts associated with environmental pollution, and how climate change is disproportionately affecting people living in rural and remote communities and regions.

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