Need for action on Traveller health a 'no-brainer' but still nothing is done

The lack of action on a survey of Travellers first published in 2010 shows no one cares. By Vincent Browne.

In September 2010 the then minister for health, Mary Harney, launched a major report on the health of members of the Traveller community. She noted how 32,000 Travellers had taken part in the all-Ireland survey out of a total Traveller population on the island estimated at 40,000, an 80% participation rate. The survey was conducted by a group of researchers at UCD led by Cecily Kelleher of the school of public health, physiotherapy and population science.

The report revealed life expectancy for Traveller women in the Republic was just over 70 years, 11½ years less than for women in the general population. For men, life expectancy was under 62 years (61.7), 15 years fewer than for the general population of men – this had worsened by 5.2 years from a survey conducted in 1987.

The survey showed that if Travellers in the Republic had the same mortality experience as the general population the number of deaths expected in the year would be 54 but the number found was 188: 134 Traveller deaths per year more than would be the case if Travellers had the life expectancy of the general population.

The survey went on to reveal that suicide accounted for 11% of all Traveller deaths. The suicide rate in male Travellers was 6.6 times higher than in the general population. The female suicide rate was also higher but the difference did not reach statistical significance.

The infant mortality rate for Travellers in the Republic was 3.6 times the rate for the general population – 3.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the general population, compared with 14.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the Traveller population.

More than 52% of Travellers aged between 40 and 60 years interviewed had high blood pressure diagnosed in the previous year, compared with 35% of the general population. The survey found 42% of Travellers had been diagnosed with high cholesterol, compared with 30% of the general population.

Both Travellers and health service providers interviewed for the survey said the social determinants of Traveller health were accommodation, education, employment, poverty, lifestyle, discrimination and access to and utilisation of services.

It found 73% of Travellers lived most frequently in a house and 18% lived in a trailer/mobile home or caravan. Flush toilets were available in more than 60% of trailer/ mobile home or caravan sites – which means 40% did not have flush toilets.

The study suggested appropriate amenities, rather than the type of accommodation, was the most important factor in determining the health and longevity of Travellers.

It found 28.8% of Travellers had difficulty reading. Nearly 40% of the 30-44- year-olds and nearly 26% of 45- to 60-year-olds had primary education only.

The reported frequency of alcohol consumption by Travellers was comparable to that of medical cardholders generally. However, two-thirds of male adult Travellers and 42% of female adult Travellers drink six drinks or more on days when they drink alcohol, compared with 35% of males and 17% of females among medical cardholders generally.

The survey found 83% of Travellers regarded religion as very important to them, nearly three-quarters regarded their identity as Travellers as very important to them and 54% thought nomadism was very important to them.

One of the most startling features of the survey was in relation to experience of discrimination among Travellers in the Republic, as compared with levels of discrimination experienced by African Americans and Hispanics in the United States as found in a comparable US study.

It found that:

  • in the Republic 62% of Travellers experienced discrimination, compared with 21% of African Americans and 9% of Hispanics in the US;
  • that 55% of Travellers experienced discrimination in getting work, compared with 28% of African Americans and 20% of Hispanics in the US;
  • that 61% of Travellers experienced discrimination in shops, pubs and restaurants, compared with 41% of African Americans and 20% of Hispanics in the US;
  • and 52% of Travellers experienced discrimination in dealing with police and the courts system, compared with 22% of African Americans and 18% of Hispanics in the US.

Mary Harney said at the launch of the report that she had begun her political career working with Travellers when she was a student at Trinity College. She said the cause of Travellers had always been a “passion” for her and “a great interest”. She said she had “no doubt” the report would have a major impact on policymaking and what needed to be done was a “no-brainer”.

The report has been relaunched in the last two weeks because no one paid any attention to it when it was first published.

The budget for Traveller health has been cut progressively since then by 5% per annum. Visiting teachers to Travellers have been ended; there has been a reduction in after-school support programmes for Travellers; and the cuts in social welfare and rent supplements have impacted particularly severely on Travellers. And more and more Travellers are taking their own lives.

It’s a no-brainer.  {jathumbnailoff}

Image top - Martin Collins, Mary Harney and Missie Collins at the launch of the All Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2010.