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Is being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander a risk factor for poor neonatal outcome in a tertiary referral unit in north Queensland?


Correspondence: Dr KS Panaretto, Senior Medical Officer, Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service, PO Box 7534 GBC, Townsville, Queensland 4814, Australia. Fax: +61 7 4771 2287; email:


Objective: To compare perinatal outcomes for all births, and the morbidity and mortality patterns of babies admitted to neonatal intensive care, for non-Indigenous, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (TSI) people in a major remote urban centre.

Methods: A prospective cohort study of all births and consecutive admissions to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit/Special Baby Care Unit (NICU/SCBU) at Kirwan Hospital for Women (KWH), Townsville (a tertiary referral hospital) was conducted from January 1998 to June 1999.

Results: There were 2575 births, with 2392 (93%) booked into KWH for delivery. The Aboriginal group differed from the non-Indigenous group only in the prevalence of low-birthweight births. The TSI group had significantly higher perinatal mortality rates, preterm and low-birthweight births than the non-Indigenous group. Seven hundred and fifty-eight babies were admitted to NICU/SCBU: 586 (77%) non-Indigenous, 129 (17%) Aboriginal, 43 (6%) TSI. There were significantly more preterm, lower birthweight and longer stay length Aboriginal and TSI babies. Being Indigenous was not associated with neonatal death. Gestation of less than 28 weeks, congenital anomalies, and high-grade cerebral haemorrhage, but not ethnicity, were independent risk factors for neonatal death. Maternal risk factors, including poor antenatal care attendance, were more prevalent amongst Indigenous women.

Conclusion: Neonatal outcomes for Aboriginal infants were better than expected from national and State reports. Outcomes for Torres Strait Islander infants were worse than expected. Ethnicity was not a risk factor for neonatal death. These findings suggest that outcomes may be further improved by programmes to increase access for Indigenous women to antenatal care services.