Alzheimer’s Australia has long been campaigning for the federal government to list dementia as a National Health Priority Area. Depicted above is the Fight Dementia protest on Parliament house last year where a few famous supporters (Ita Buttrose, Sue-Pieters Hawke, Glen Rees), people with dementia and their families and friends, marched to raise government awareness of the issue.

By Yasmin Noone

Tomorrow will be D-Day for Alzheimer’s Australia and the 280,000 people currently living with dementia, as the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, and federal Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek, formally propose that dementia be made a National Health Priority Area (NHPA) at a meeting of all state and territory health ministers in Canberra.

News of whether the joint motion, which was foreshadowed at an earlier meeting of the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council, will receive a yes or no response and determine whether or not dementia will be Australia’s ninth NHPA is due around 4pm.

Should the country’s health ministers agree to instating dementia as a priority, the disease will bear equal importance to cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular health in terms of government policy and funding.

It would bring the cause out of the shadows and focus a greater amount of political and medical attention on the disease; create the basis for which a National Action Plan could be built upon; and collaborative efforts aimed at tackling dementia at national, local and state and territory levels.

Making dementia a NHP would also mark a back-flip on national health policy, given that the government Dementia Initiative – called Helping Australians with Dementia and their Carers –Making Dementia a National Health Priority and introduced in 2005 – ceased in 2011.

Minister Butler publically announced his intention to propose the motion at the Department of Health and Ageing’s National Aged Care Conference earlier this week.

He commented that getting the motion passed would be an extension of the dementia-specific work the government committed to do through its Living Longer Living Better aged care reform package.

“We haven’t received formal positions from health ministers yet but it was foreshadowed at the last health ministers meeting,” Minister Butler said in an interview with AAA.

“There were good indications [that it will be declared a NHPA] but obviously the ministers wanted to go back and get advice about it.

“So we don’t know formal positions yet but I’m pretty hopeful of getting support. Because I think that broadly, around the country, people recognise the scale of the challenge that dementia is that will present to health and aged care systems.”

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report, released this year in partnership with Alzheimer’s Disease International, recommended that governments worldwide put dementia high up on their public health agenda.

The report also listed Australia as one of the eight WHO member states out of 194 which had a national dementia plan in place, and commended the government for it.

Alzheimer’s Australia has been campaigning for the government to make dementia a NHP since it received news of the Dementia Initiative’s official termination at the turn of the 2011/12 financial year.

Its Fight Dementia Campaign, launched last year, called for dementia to be listed as a NHP and for an extra $500 million to be allocated over five yearsfrom 2012/13. The recently launched aged care reform package included around $270 million of new initiatives to fight dementia.

President of Alzheimer’s Australia, Ita Buttrose, said listing dementia as a NHPA is a “long overdue” move. 

“Alzheimer’s is a serious disease with serious implications for Australia and our ageing society,” said Ms Buttrose.

“We would urge the ministers to make dementia a National Health Priority.”

However, Ms Buttrose said, although getting dementia recognised as a NHPA has been one of the organisation’s goals, it is but one of many.

“We want better community care packages and more choice for people with dementia and their family carers in relation to respite care. We are keen to get the National Dementia Helpline returned back to our jurisdiction. At the moment it’s in limbo and we are very concerned.

“The next stage of our campaign will also be directed towards getting more money for research so we can find out why people get dementia and why it attacks the brain the way it does.

“We’ve got a whole list of objectives. Getting dementia declared a NHP is just one of them…But it would be a fantastic start.”

In late-April this year, Minister Tanya Plibersek addressed the ministerial committee and gave notice that the Commonwealth will propose that dementia be designated a NHP.

Ms Plibersek said the projected growth in the number of people with dementia will result in many challenges for the health sector.

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