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Health - a right for Travellers

HEART OF THE MATTER
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Health-a human right for Travellers


Heart of the matter
Áine ryan

WHEN was the last time you, or a member of your family, was sick? What did you do?
Easy. You either went to the nearest pharmacy, phoned your GP for an appointment or drove to the A&E department of your local hospital. Three simple choices that as citizens we automatically avail of, have no problem with - other than the pesky inconvenience of overcrowded waiting rooms.
What though if you live on the side of the road in a caravan? You don’t have electricity, a landline, a phonebook or a car. Your child is really ill, you’ve gone into premature labour, and/or you are a lone parent with six children under the age of ten. 
What if you don’t have running water, a toilet, a refuse service, a postal service? What if you can’t read?
Within the coming weeks a Primary Health Care Project (PHC) for Travellers, organised by Mayo Traveller Support Group (MTSG), will start in Ballina. The 16 participants in the three year training programme, will be from the travelling community and most likely will all be women. During this course, which is a joint Fás and  Health Services Executive (HSE) initiative, they will learn how to become conduits between their own community and health service professionals regarding the accessing and the provision of medical facilities.
Viewed as a cornerstone of the Government report, Traveller Health: A National Strategy 2002-2005, there are about 40 such PHC projects ongoing around the country. However, the genesis of this radical initiative may be traced back 21 years to the publication of the Health Status Study 1987, which clearly revealed that Travellers have distinctive health and disease problems to settled people.
Their everyday living conditions meant that they had different needs regarding infectious diseases, traffic accidents, ante-natal care, child spacing, genetic counselling, general health behaviour and use of health services, the study revealed.
The PHC Project for Travellers was established over a decade ago by the Pavee Point Travellers’ Centre in Dublin. In its third review of the project, published  last year, Pavee Point found that ‘it was time to reflect on the changing policy and social context of Travellers’ health’.
“There is a growing need to ensure that PHC is not seen in isolation as the panacea to address the health status of Travellers, it needs to be prioritised by Government, with cross-departmental commitment to addressing its causes,” said the review.
It is a decade ago since Dublin-based Traveller, Missie Collins argued: “We understand our own people and believe that given the proper support and resources we can begin to improve the health of our community. It is no longer acceptable that only two out of every 1,000 Travellers’ lives to 65 years of age.”
In 2003, Minister Eamonn Ó Cuív launched, The Road Ahead: Making Mayo Better for Travellers. Commenting on the fact that out of 1,000 Travellers in the county only 15 of them were aged over 65, Mr Ó Cuív said: “These figures starkly speak for themselves.”
MTSG’s, Sandra Judge argues that just because many Travellers are since ‘settled’ does not mean their inferior quality of life had changed.
“There are still comparable educational problems, discrimination issues and access to health services among settled Travellers. Remember, discrimination and social exclusion have a hugely stressful effect,” she said.
“The key elements of this training programme is to get information to Travellers about health services and to inform HSE workers about Travellers’ needs. A massive benefit of the programme is that it is peer led,” said Ms Judge.
 She also observed that just because many Travellers are since ‘settled’ did not mean their inferior quality of life had changed.
“There are still comparable educational problems, discrimination issues and access to health services among settled Travellers.  Remember, discrimination has a hugely stressful effect,” she continued.
Ms Judge added that an ongoing study, being led by Pavee Point, which aims to further clarify the health status of Travellers, including their life expectancy, will prove invaluable on publication.
Bernadette Comiskey is a Traveller activist living in Ballina. As manager of the Sligo Traveller Support Group, which is already running one of these courses, she contends that Travellers who train on this programme effectively become advocates for their community.
“The Community Health Worker works alongside the health professionals to bridge the gap, Whether that’s by organising smear clinics, or dental clinics, child care or accommodation, or simply reading a letter for those Travellers that are illiterate,” said Ms Comiskey. 
“How can you access information if you can’t read it? It’s like an English person going to France on holidays, not being able to speak the language and attempting to read a restaurant menu,” she added.