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Keywords:

  • Aboriginal people;
  • C-reactive protein;
  • ­immunoglobulins;
  • kava;
  • substance-related disorders

Abstract

Background:  Heavy kava use in Aboriginal commun­ities has been linked to various health effects, including anecdotes of sudden cardiac deaths.

Aims:  To examine associations between kava use and potential health effects.

Methods:  A cross-sectional study was carried out within a kava-using east Arnhem Land Aboriginal community in tropical northern Australia. One-hundred-and-one adults who were current, recent or non-users of kava were enrolled in March 2000. Main outcome measures were physical, anthropometric, biochemical, haematological, immunological and neurocognitive assessments.

Results:  Kava users more frequently showed a characteristic dermopathy (P < 0.001). They had increased levels of γ-glutamyl transferase and alkaline phosphatase (P < 0.001). Lymphocyte counts were significantly lower in kava users (P < 0.001). Fibrinogen, plasmin­ogen activator inhibitor-1 and neurocognitive tests were not different between kava use categories. IgE and IgG antibodies were elevated across the whole group, as were C-reactive protein and homocysteine.

Conclusions:  Kava use was associated with dermopathy, liver function abnormalities and decreased lymphocytes. If kava continues to be used by Aboriginal populations, monitoring should focus on the health consequences of these findings, including a possible increase in serious infections. The interaction between kava, alcohol and other substances requires further study. Although markers of cardiovascular risk are increased across the population, these were not higher in kava users, and this increase may be linked to the large infectious pathogen burden reflective of the socioeconomic disadvantage seen in many remote Aboriginal communities. (Intern Med J 2003; 33: 336−340)