Friday, June 29, 2007

Life expectancy of Irish travellers still at 1940s levels despite economic boom

Ireland's fortunes may have been transformed by an economic boom that has made its people among the richest in the developed world.

But its travelling people have the life expectancy of the Ireland of the 1940s, a damning report published in Dublin this week shows.

In addition to particularly high levels of infant mortality, the findings show that seven in 10 travellers die before reaching the age of 59.

Such statistics put the travelling community, which is estimated at around 30,000, well outside the health norms of Irish society.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, said the statistics resembled those of people living in a Third World country. "I have a feeling that Ireland's new-found prosperity has, if anything, dimmed our awareness of the situation of the travelling community," he said.

"Travellers continue to be among the most disadvantaged groups in our society. Anyone reading this will be moved to sadness, and indeed even to anger, to see just how deep that disadvantage reaches into the most fundamental elements of human dignity."

Travellers as a group have been known for some time to experience a potent mix of problems including curtailed life expectancy and bad health.

But the starkness of the new figures has nonetheless come as a shock to many. Despite the country's prosperity, and the fact that recent waves of immigrants have integrated into Irish society, travellers have tended to remain at its periphery. They have a negative image in many quarters, with many regarding them with hostility.

The health threats to them in some ways reflect their traditional semi-nomadic way of life, with members of the community 10 times more likely to die in road accidents. These, at 22 per cent, represented the most common cause of death among males.

Infants are 10 times more likely to die before reaching the age of two, while a third of travellers die before the age of 25. In addition, 80 per cent of travellers die before the age of 65.

On the other hand, travellers are less at risk of dying from heart attacks or strokes - though this is largely because so few of them reach the age when they are likely to die from such causes.

Suicides are also more common than among the general population.

The report represents a snapshot rather than a full-blown scientific study, since it is based on Catholic Church records covering only part of Dublin. It nonetheless is said to be a realistic depiction of the biggest health issues for travellers.

Punningly entitled Travellers' Last Rights: responding to death in a cultural context, the report examines more than 200 deaths recorded over 10 years.

According to the report's co-author, Fr Stephen Monaghan: "While providing pastoral care services to travellers at times of death and bereavement, we were increasingly concerned about the age profile and cause of death."

Although the authorities say that they are addressing the problems and acting on a previous report on this issue, travellers' groups claim that any progress is slow.

The Irish Times said that many in the country did not wish to face up to the issues of travellers and their health, but that the issue had to be addressed. The newspaper added: "For these people, the issue is simply ignored - something that is not up for discussion, let alone action.

Such counsel must not, however, be allowed hold sway.

If the issue of travellers was easy to resolve, it would have been decades ago.

But it has become so controversial, so divisive, that large numbers of people in both the settled community and the traveller community have long since set their faces against trying to do anything to improve matters.

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