A program linking sleep science and traditional knowledge is being expanded to treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in regional Indigenous communities.

Associate professor Yaqoot Fatima, PhD, from The University of Queensland’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health said one in four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the condition to a moderate or severe level, but it is largely untreated.

“When a person’s airway is blocked during sleep, there are sudden drops in blood oxygen levels and frequent wakefulness affecting restorative sleep and straining the cardiovascular system,” says Fatima in a release. “People who don’t sleep well are more likely to be overweight and at risk of diabetes, heart disease, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.”

The OSA project has received $4.06 million from the Medical Research Future Fund and will be an extension of Let’s Yarn About Sleep, a partnership led by The University of Queensland, which runs a co-designed sleep health program for young Indigenous people in northwest Queensland.

“When we started, we were focused on the sleep health of teenagers, but during the community consultation, Elders were quite vocal about the lack of sleep health services in community and said people are struggling with sleep apnea,” says Fatima in the release. “Sleep is a biological necessity for good health and brain function, and it affects spiritual health. In First Nations culture, it is an important time to connect with ancestors, country, and cultural knowledge. 

By consulting with community members and up to 100 service providers, those involved aim to identify what’s contributing to poor sleep and upskill local health workers to improve the diagnosis and treatment of OSA and other sleep health conditions.

People meeting the criteria for a home-based sleep study will be visited by trained Aboriginal Health Workers, and moderate to severe cases will be managed locally while complex cases will be referred to specialist services.

Roslyn Von Senden, a Let’s Yarn About Sleep program coordinator in Mount Isa, said the sleep program for young people had ignited interest in the importance of sleep, and communities including Cloncurry, Doomadgee, Normanton, Burketown, Yarrabah, and Wujal Wujal were becoming involved.

“A part of my role is actually moving to each community and talking to people about what we’re doing and then having steering groups from these communities set up,” says Von Senden in a release. “They have a lot of knowledge and a lot of skills to make sure that the foundations are laid in the way that we do things with respect and integrity.”

Sleep coach Karen Chong has been running the program in Mount Isa and will be upskilling for the sleep apnea project.

“I feel that our culture will be lost if our children don’t sleep properly because, when we’re sleeping, all our messages and everything comes through our dreams. And without proper sleep, we could lose our culture,” says Chong in a release. “I’m going to be training to be a sleep technologist, and I will be doing on-the-job training with my people out in the communities and in Mount Isa, and, similar to the young people, I would like to educate them on how to prevent these chronic diseases and have a longer life.”

Fatima and the Let’s Yarn About Sleep research team received a UQ Partners in Indigenous Research Excellence Award during Research and Innovation Week.

The Let’s Yarn About Sleep OSA program partners are Ngak Min Health, Mithangkaya Nguli, Sleep Health Foundation, Gidgee Healing, and North West Hospital and Health Service.

Photo 23505472 | Aboriginal Community © Rozenn Leard | Dreamstime.com