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There are many things that individuals, communities and governments can do to prevent or reduce ill health. Australia has a long history of organised efforts in this area and continues to find new ways to tackle health problems.

For example, actions taken to promote good health in the community include vaccination programs, cancer screening and guidelines for drinking alcohol and eating. Some of these activities and guidelines cover the whole population, while others target particular groups based on age or other risk factors.

Getting screened for cancer

For some types of cancer, a test can be used to identify people who may have the disease before symptoms appear. Tests are offered to those who may have an increased risk of cancer because of their age, sex or other factors. This is called screening.

There are national screening programs for breast, cervical and bowel cancer in Australia, and each has its own target group based on age and sex. The latest data show that:

  • 55% of women aged 50–69 took part in BreastScreen Australia programs in 2009–2010
  • 57% of women aged 20–69 took part in the National Cervical Screening Program in 2009–2010
  • 38% of men and women invited between July 2008 and June 2011 took part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

For each of these programs, people living in more disadvantaged areas generally were less likely to have a screening test than those in less disadvantaged areas.

Cancer screening participation

Image illustrates statistics on cancer screening participation in 2009-10.

Find out more: ‘Section 4.6 Cancer screening’ in Australia’s health 2012

Vaccinating children

Vaccination uses the body’s natural defence mechanism—the immune response—to build resistance to specific infections. Childhood is the time for vaccination against diseases such as hepatitis B, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella.

The majority of children are fully immunised, that is, they have received all vaccinations appropriate for their age—92% of 1 year olds, 93% of 2 year olds, and 90% of 5 year olds. While the proportion fully immunised has remained steady for 1 and 2 year olds in recent years, there have been considerable recent improvements for 5 year olds.

In 2007, Australia was the first country to introduce a national human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination program. It is estimated that about 7 in 10 Australian girls have been vaccinated with the recommended three doses of the vaccine.

Proportion of young children fully immunised: trends

Line graph shows the proportion of 1 year old, 2 year old and 5 year old children who have been fully immunised (for the quarter: March 2008 to December 2011). Over 90% of 1 and 2 year olds had been fully immunised during this period, and this rate remained steady. Recent improvements for 5 year olds saw 90 per cent having received all age-appropriate vaccinations by December 2011, compared to less than 80 per cent in March 2008.

Find out more: ‘Chapter 4 Protecting and promoting health’ in Australia’s health 2012

Fluoridating water for healthy teeth

Water fluoridation is known to be a safe and effective way to reduce tooth decay. In 2010, 80% or more of the population in each state and territory had access to fluoridated water, with the exception of the Northern Territory (70%). Non-fluoridated water supplies are generally more likely to be found in regional and remote areas.

Drinking fluoridated water during childhood translates into better oral health in adulthood. Australians born after 1970 (the ‘fluoride generation’) have, on average, half the level of tooth decay of their parents’ generation.

Population receiving optimally fluoridated water, 2010

Map shows percentage of the Australian population, by state and territory, that had access to optimally fluoridated water in 2012 – WA: 92%, NT: 70%, SA: 90%, QLD: 80%, NSW: 94%, ACT: 100%, VIC: 90%, TAS: 83%.

Find out more: ‘Section 4.1 Health and the environment’ in Australia’s health 2012

Butting out around children

Tobacco smoke contains many toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that increase the risk of poor health outcomes, particularly among children. To prevent children’s exposure to tobacco smoke, adults should avoid smoking in enclosed spaces such as the car or home.

The proportion of households with dependent children having someone smoking inside the home has fallen dramatically, from 31% in 1995 to 6% in 2010. Consistent with the general decline in smoking, the proportion of households where no-one smoked regularly at home increased from 52% in 1995 to 65% in 2010.

As at 2012, all states and territories, except for Northern Territory, had implemented bans on smoking in cars to reduce children’s exposure to second-hand smoke.

Smoking in households with dependent children: trends

Line graph shows percentage of households with dependent children where someone smokes inside the home has fallen dramatically – from over 30 per cent in 1995 to less than 10 per cent in 2010.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.8 Tobacco smoking’ in Australia’s health 2012

Reducing alcohol consumption

Health guidelines recommend drinking no more than 2 standard drinks a day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. Drinking no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

In 2010, 1 in 5 people aged 14 or older were at risk of lifetime harm and about 2 in 5 put themselves at risk of an alcohol-related injury during a single occasion at least once in the previous year. Males and younger Australians were most at risk.

Levels of risky alcohol use have generally remained stable over the past decade.

Lifetime risk of harm, people aged 14 or older, 2010

Stacked bar chart shows percentage of males and females, aged 14 years or older, who consumed alcohol at risky levels during 2010.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.9 Alcohol consumption’ in Australia’s health 2012

Reducing illicit drug use

Illicit drugs include illegal drugs (such as marijuana/cannabis, heroin, ecstasy and cocaine), volatile substances used as inhalants (such as glue and petrol) and pharmaceutical drugs used for non-medical purposes.

In 2010, about 7.3 million people aged 14 or older (40%) had ever used an illicit drug, and almost 3 million (15%) had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months. The most common drug used both recently and over their lifetime was cannabis.

Since 1993, the proportions using illicit drugs have fluctuated, with a peak in usage for many drugs seen in 1998. For cocaine, however, the highest use was reported in 2010 (2.1% of the population aged 14 or older)—4 times the rate in 1993 (0.5%).

Recent use of selected illicit drugs, people aged 14 or older: trends

Line graph shows trends in the proportion of the population, aged 14 years or older, using illicit drugs. Cannabis remained the most commonly used drug – although this had declined from just over 12 per cent in 1993 to around 10 per cent in 2010. Use of cocaine increased by 4 times the 1993 rate, to just over 2 per cent in 2010.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.10 Illicit drug use’ in Australia’s health 2012

Eating fruit and vegies

Dietary guidelines recommend that Australian men and women consume two to four serves of fruit and four to eight serves of vegetables per day. In health promotion messages, this is generally interpreted as two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables.

Recent findings suggest that our consumption of fruit and particularly vegetables falls far short of these recommendations. In 2007–08, fewer than 1 in 10 people aged 12 and over usually ate sufficient serves of vegetables and about half ate sufficient serves of fruit. Females are more likely to eat sufficient serves.

People eating sufficient serves of fruit and vegetables, 2007–08

Bar chart shows fruit and vegetable consumption of males and females in 2007-08. Around 60 per cent of females ate sufficient serves of fruit, compared with around 50 per cent of males. Less than 10 per cent of males and females ate sufficient serves of vegetables.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.4 Dietary behaviours’ in Australia’s health 2012

Breastfeeding

Australia’s dietary guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants until 6 months of age, with the introduction of solid foods at around 6 months and continued breastfeeding until 12 months—and beyond if both mother and infant wish. Mothers unable to breastfeed or who choose not to can use a suitable breastmilk substitute.

Although most babies (96%) in 2010 were initially breastfed, only 39% of infants were exclusively breastfed to around 4 months, and 15% to around 6 months.

Babies whose mothers (or carers) were 35 or older were 3 times as likely to be exclusively breastfed for around 6 months as babies whose mothers (or carers) were 24 or younger.

Exclusive breastfeeding, 2010

Bar chart shows percentage of babies who were exclusively breastfed in 2010, up to the age of 7 months. Over 95 per cent of babies were initially breastfed, and this dropped to 60 per cent by 1 month of age, and around 40 per cent by 4 months of age.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.3 Infant feeding and early nutrition practices’ in Australia’s health 2012

Making time for active lifestyles

Physical activity guidelines for adults recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking or swimming) on most, preferably all, days. Some regular, vigorous activity (such as jogging or basketball) is also recommended for extra health and fitness if possible.

In 2007–08, almost 60% of Australians aged 15 and over did not do enough physical activity as defined by these guidelines, and this proportion increased with age. Females were slightly more likely to be inactive.

Similar to many risk factors, there is a relationship between socioeconomic status and physical activity. People living in areas of lower socioeconomic status were generally more likely than people in areas of higher socioeconomic status to report insufficient physical activity. This pattern was clearer for females than males.

Insufficient physical activity, by socioeconomic status, 2007–08

Bar chart shows Australians in lowest socioeconomic areas were less likely to engage in recommended levels of physical activity in 2007-08. Across all levels of socioeconomic status, females were more likely to report insufficient levels of physical activity.

Find out more: ‘Section 5.5 Physical activity’ in Australia’s health 2012

Visiting GPs for prevention

In addition to treating acute health problems, general practitioners (GPs) can provide preventive health advice and care. A survey of general practice activity found that many reasons patients gave for seeing a GP were related to preventive care (for example, check-ups and vaccinations).

Of the clinical treatments provided in 2009–10, about 21% were counselling or advice regarding prevention. However, some of these treatments have declined over the past decade. For example, counselling and advice about nutrition and weight decreased from 5.6% of GP visits to 3.7%. Across Australia, this equates to 1.3 million fewer occasions at which counselling and advice about nutrition and weight were given in 2009–10 than in 2000–01.

GPs providing counselling/advice for prevention: trends

Line graph shows percentage of GP visits where advice or counselling was provided for nutrition/weight, exercise, smoking, lifestyle, and alcohol, between 2000 and 2010. The majority of GP visits for advice were in the area of nutrition/weight, although this declined from nearly 6% in 2000-01 to less than 4% in 2009-10.

Find out more: ‘Section 7.3 General practitioners’ in Australia’s health 2012