Over the last 11 years, this small rural community has raised over half a million dollars to take some of the stress out of life with cancer.
Can Assist provides simple and confidential financial assistance to people from regional communities. Over 50 branches are at work across New South Wales, including the Bega Valley and Eurobodalla.
The green shirts of the Bega Valley brigade gathered recently, motivated by their ever-present need to fundraise. The lunchtime auction at Oaklands in Pambula raised $10,500.
“People were very generous on Sunday, a carrot cake sold for $140, which says it all,” Bega Valley Can Assist volunteer, Peter van Bracht says.
“We need about four to five thousand dollars a month, last year we handed out $78,000.
“But since we’ve been going over 11 years, we’ve handed out about $550,000, and we’ve helped 424 people,” he says.
Can Assist covers some of the financial burden cancer treatment imposes on a patients life and those supporting them. The money raised helps with everything from electricity bills, to travel and accommodation, to specialist fees and medicines – anything and everything is considered.
“While people are undergoing treatment, their ability to work and earn a living drops,” Peter says.
“There are so many more people we could help, but people say – there are people worse off than us, but that is quite often not true.
“The sad thing is, in the Bega Valley there are people who can’t afford to pay $210 to see a specialist, it’s shameful that those people often go without treatment, we want to help,” he says.
The charm about Can Assist is that their support happens with strict confidentiality. There is only one person at each branch of Can Assist that ever knows the identity of the people receiving support.
“At our meetings once a month our liaison person provides a report, but no names are ever mentioned, nobody else in the organisation knows who we are helping,” Peter explains.
“That’s the way we like it, and I think people like that we respect their privacy.”
Competition for the charity dollar is tight in the small towns and villages that dot the Bega Valley. Can Assist works hard to keep the organisation’s own costs low.
“We don’t have overheads – no cars, no office, the only luxury is a mobile phone that is used as a contact point for people,” Peter says.
“And we can honestly say that every cent we raise, stays in the Bega Valley – we pride ourselves in saying that.”
Around events like Sunday’s auction, volunteers are selling morning tea to local businesses once a month and selling raffle tickets to keep funds rolling in. Other local charities like the Bermagui based Cancer Research Advocate Bikers (CRABS) also donate funds from time to time to help with the growing need.
“If you know anybody that needs help please contact Can Assist and we’ll see what we can do for them,” Peter says.
“We are just happy to help people and make life a bit easier.”
A ten-month debate at Bega Valley Shire Council came to an end this afternoon with councilors voting to add fluoride to most of the shire’s remaining water supplies.
Council has been adding fluoride to the Bega-Tathra system since 1963, today’s six – two result in the chamber will see it added to two of Council’s other water supplies.
The long process has been characterised by conflicting science and at times hostile debate, which was on show again at today’s council meeting.
Before a public gallery of around 30 people, five community members addressed councilors urging them to reject the idea, most suggesting that Council would face legal action if they proceeded.
“I do not give council permission to introduce this toxic substance as mass medication without choice into my water supply,” Merriwinga resident, Sean Burke said.
Negative health impacts have been a real fear of those opposing the introduction. Reduced IQ, thyroid complaints, cancer, fertility problems, arthritis, and kidney disease have all been raised during the course of the debate.
“Imagine the outcry if you were to add some other medicine to the water?” Bermagui’s Anthony Hereford argued.
Pambula’s Fraser Buchanan, speaking for the Bega Valley Residents and Ratepayers Association suggested the recent NSW Health phone survey on the issue was biased in favour of fluoride.
Five hundred residents were quizzed over the summer holidays and asked, “Do you agree with adding fluoride to the public drinking supply to try to prevent tooth decay?”
“Step up and show you are unwilling to be part of a contrived process,” Mr Buchanan urged Councillors.
The validity of the survey was a theme that run through the discussion, however some councilors were clearly swayed by the results – 66.2% responded ‘yes’, 28.4% responded ‘no’, 5.2% were unsure and only 0.2% preferred not to respond to the survey.
Today’s decision for Bega Valley Shire Council was prompted by NSW Health asking regional water utilities who don’t already incorporate fluoride into their water treatment processes to do so as a prevention of tooth decay.
With 96% of the state fluoridated, NSW Health is moving on the remaining 4% and is providing all the funds needed for the Bega Valley to come on board.
Councilors Cathy Griff and Jo Dodds argued strongly for those in the room campaigning against the idea.
Cr Griff moved a motion to defer the decision pending legal advice but that was defeated.
“Sugar is the problem,” Cr Griff said.
“The case is building against fluoride, I would like to think we could lead the way.”
Despite a general acceptance among councilors of the benefits of fluoride in preventing tooth decay, many also seemed frustrated at the conflicting science presented during the course of the debate with both sides undermining the quality of each others research.
“This triggers in me the precautionary principle,” Cr Dodds said.
“There is too much evidence of risk.”
With Councillor Mitchell Nadin on leave, the vote could have been split four all but it soon became clear of the eight remaining councilors, six would be saying ‘yes’ to fluoride.
Cr Robyn Bain said, “This gives everybody the chance to have good dental health.”
“Not everybody has the ability to afford good dental care, this is equitable.”
In voting for fluoride, Cr Liz Seckold said, “I will always advocate for the socially disadvantaged.”
“I am sick of being bullied by the anti-fluoride brigade,” she added.
Cobargo’s, Cr Tony Allen was of a similar view, “This will be of benefit to people across the shire.”
Heckled from the public gallery, Cr Sharon Tapscott cut short her speech suggesting, “You are only interested that I vote your way,” she said.
Cr Tapscott drew on the 46-year history of fluoride in the Bega – Tathra supply.
“We’ve had no health problems, that experience should guide us,” she said.
In voting ‘yes’ Pambula’s Russell Fitzpatrick said, “Good oral health is vital and has a huge impact on overall health.”
After rising to her feet at least five times to settle the rowdy gallery, Mayor Kristy McBain was among the last to speak on the issue.
Cr McBain drew a compassion between her own childhood drinking fluoridated water and that of her eight your old daughters.
She told the chamber her daughter has already had four fillings.
“She doesn’t come from a poor background, she brushes her teeth and we see the dentist,” Cr McBain said.
“The only difference is that I came from a fluoridated area she does not.”
Council says the introduction of fluoride means extensive capital asset construction along with human resource considerations, staff training, policy and procedure reviews.
Meaning that it is expected to be a number of years before the people of Candelo, Wolumla, Merimbula, Tura, Pambula, Eden, Kiah, Quaama, Cobargo, Brogo, Wallaga Lake, and Bermagui are drinking fluoridated water.
In closing, Cr McBain made the point that fluoride was not the shires most pressing water issue, the Mayor suggesting that money would be better spent on building water filtration plants.
The 66-year-old member of Pambula Surf Life Saving Club started the epic race in Batemans Bay on New Year’s Eve, 31km’s later as “Super” was helping pull his boat ashore at South Head, Moruya his heart stopped.
“The bloke was dead when he was brought up the sand,” Dr Steve Craig says.
“Through the excellent work and training of the surf life-saving members, they got the defibrillator on him very quickly, we were able to get his heart going again and he left the beach alive.”
Lifesavers on patrol with Moruya Surf Club also played a critical role in beating away death until paramedics from NSW Ambulance arrived.
Super was taken to Moruya Hospital and shortly after flown to Canberra where a pacemaker was inserted in his chest.
Five days later Wayne Kent, who takes his nickname from Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, was there at Pambula Beach to cheer his clubmates across the line on day six of the race. At the awards presentation that afternoon the crowd erupted as Super spoke of his experience.
“If it had happened out at sea god knows what would have happened, I would have hated to put the crew through that, they are a good bunch of blokes,” Super says.
“I am so lucky it happened on the beach because I had 240 odd rowers around me – all life-savers and if anyone was going to kick the bucket on that day they would have had to have been really gone.”
Scare tissue from previous heart bypass surgery is thought to have been a factor in Super’s heart failure.
Twenty-five surfboats and thirteen surf skis started the 7 day, 190km George Bass, the finish line at Snug Cove in Eden seemed a long way away when Super hit the sand at the end of day one, his brush with death pointing to the challenges ahead for the bodies taking part.
“My intention was just to drive the [boat] trailer around for them, but the boys couldn’t find a sweep, so the next thing you know I was in for another year,” Super laughs.
The 66-year-old can’t remember when he first took part in the Bass, sometime in the 1990’s is his best guess, over the years he has been a rower, sweep, and coach.
Dr Steve Craig says he’ll be writing a letter of commendation to the volunteer surf life-savers from Moruya that stepped up when Super went down.
“They just clicked over into their training and by doing so within two or three minutes we had his heart started again,” Dr Craig says.
A South East local has been one of those with her hands on the lever driving the campaign.
It’s a captivating tale involving one of Australia’s most prized and intriguing artist – Albert Namatjira.
Born and raised in the landscape of Central Australia around Hermannsburg near Alice Springs, Mr Namatjira is known for his ‘European style’ watercolour paintings of outback Australia, a fusion between his Aboriginal ancestry and ‘white man’s’ art.
Recognised by many as the father of contemporary Aboriginal art, his work sells at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.
The film, which is released today (September 7) tells the story of his legacy – a legacy that alludes his family and his community to their detriment.
Pambula’s Bettina Richter works for Big hART, who, along with the Namatjira family are producers of the Namatjira Project. Her work has been central to the notoriety this campaign has been receiving – and it’s only just beginning.
Big hART is Australia’ leading arts and social change organisation. We tell Australia’s invisible stories, with the premise ‘it’s harder to hurt someone if you know their story’.
Big hART was founded 25 years ago in Burnie in North West Tasmania and has now worked in over 50 communities across Australia, winning over 45 awards.
The Big hART team currently work in the Pilbara WA, NW Tasmania, Cooma, Northern Territory, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Pambula (me!).
Tell us about your job and what you like about it?
I am the Media and Communications Manager of Big hART and am responsible for managing all our media coverage and overseeing our social media channels, basically communicating Big hART to the world.
I am relatively new to Big hART and have only been working with them for 1 year.
I love my job for many reasons – I feel like I’m involved in something that is creating real change – using the arts as a tool, inspiring others to be change makers and working on exemplary, innovative projects which are like no other.
I’m part of an inspiring team – my colleagues are dedicated and extremely talented and passionate about their work, and for me, it’s also really satisfying to go back to my roots – working in theatre and the arts, and using it as a mobiliser.
What is the Namatjira Project?
Namatjira Project is Big hART‘s initiative with Albert Namatjira’s family, it’s aim is to restore justice and ensure the survival of Albert Namatjira’s legacy.
The project has created an internationally acclaimed theatre show, countless exhibitions of Hermannsburg artists, a foundation (The Namatjira Legacy Trust), and now the film is about to be released nationally in cinemas around the country.
The film (released 7 Sept nationally) follows the Namatjira’s family’s fight for copyright justice, from Aranda Country to Buckingham Palace.
The Trust’s aim is to support outreach and inter-generational knowledge transfer through art workshops as well as restore the copyright back to the family.
Why is this important, why did Big hART pick it up?
We were invited by the Namatjira family to work with the Hermannsburg community over 8 years ago.
The family and community who held the legacy to Australia’s most famous Indigenous artist were struggling to survive, and the art movement he created was under threat.
Albert Namatjira’s family lost the copyright to his work in 1983 when the Northern Territory government unwittingly sold it to a white private art dealer for just $8500.
In Albert’s lifetime, he supported over 600 members of his family through his work. These days Albert’s family and community struggle to survive in Ntaria (Hermannsburg) – 54% live in overcrowded conditions, 56% subsist on income support and 11% will be displaced and admitted to hospital with chronic illness caused by poor environmental health, and students achieve below the national minimum standard in literacy and numeracy.
Now due to the US Free Trade Agreement, unless something changes, the copyright will not expire till 2029.
With the Namatjira Project and the film, we hope to ensure justice and future sustainability to Albert Namatjira’s family and community.
What has been your role in the Project?
My main role has been running the media campaign and capturing as much national media coverage as possible.
Building significant media relationships is integral, and there is a lot of strategy involved in how I pitch to media and what our messaging is. It’s also important to be across the Namatjira family’s needs and cultural issues and conveying that appropriately to the media.
In the last 6 months alone, the Namatjira Project has generated close to 100 stories in the media – TV, print, radio and online.
What does it feel like to be a part of such a campaign?
I feel deeply honoured to be part of the campaign and to be able to assist with getting their story out there in the national debate.
There is a genuine sense of awareness building across Australia, of public concern and outrage of the injustices the family and Albert Namatjira have faced.
It’s extremely exciting to feel that we may actually be close to generating real change for the community.
Where is Big hART hoping this attention might lead?
Big hART hopes that we may assist in returning the copyright to the family, and ultimately ensure the future sustainability of the family, community, and the Hermannsburg Watercolour Movement.
Any signs that the work of Big hART with the Namatjira Project is making a difference? Where to from here?
Unfortunately, since the launch of the Namatjira Legacy Trust, the copyright owners, Legend Press, have remained silent. However, now with the immense public and media interest, we now have a high profile legal team engaged who are building a case. Watch this space!
Have you met any of the Namatjira family? What are they like?
As part of organising media interviews, my work also involves looking after and chaperoning people into media interviews.
I have been lucky enough to have met 3 of Albert’s senior grand-daughters – Lenie Namatjira, Gloria Pannka and Lewina Namatjira.
Lenie was not in great shape health-wise when I met her at the Namatjira Trust Launch at the National Museum in Canberra, and I wheeled her around in a wheelchair at the museum for most of the morning.
Whilst English is her second language, she has a wicked sense of humour and enjoys telling people her stories of meeting the Queen. Lenie also follows her family in the watercolour tradition.
Gloria is a very smart woman, very considered and also artistic. She is an esteemed artist in her own right, with work in the collections of many of our national galleries.
Lewina is the youngest grand-daughter of Albert and spoke for the first time in the national debate as part of the film’s launch at Melbourne Film Festival.
Lewina is the new generation, passionate about her heritage and committed to getting the message out.
How can people here in your community support the project and Big hART more broadly?
If you would like to host a local community screening in your town, at your local cinema or hall etc, community members and groups can host a screening through FanForce, go to www.namatjiradocumentary.org
FAN cites a series of scientific studies that point to negative health effects related to fluoride. Yet the World Health Organisation cites fluoridation of water as, “the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”
The ingredients of this debate are a potent mix of conflicting evidence, with added fear, and a rather large ethical grey area.
It’s murky and hard to navigate.
Yet if you can familiarise yourself with this tricky landscape, you can start to make sense of the different perspectives people have on this issue, and perhaps take some of the fear out of the equation.
It turns out that scientific studies, the foundation stones of public health debate, are not always as rock solid as they seem.
While the fluoride debate touches on personal choice, welfare, and economics; scientific studies are a central part of pro and anti-fluoride argument.
A body of studies has been cited by the Fluoride Action Network pointing to potential effects of fluoride such as reduced IQ in children, obesity, and even cancer.
But with so much at stake, how do you navigate the conflicting “evidence” that we’re finding?
Where better to begin than Google Scholar?! Google’s search engine for published academic studies. What happens when you search for “fluoride and IQ”?
Looking through the studies that have linked fluoride to lower IQ in children, one thing stands out – most studies that popped up didn’t test for other factors that could affect IQ.
Many studies were from China, India, or Mongolia, and compared towns that fluoridated water supplies with those that didn’t.
However, they didn’t check for other differences between the towns – levels of poverty, nutrition, potential lead and arsenic poisoning, all of which can affect the IQ of children.
This is like blaming weight gain on exercise, without considering diet.
These studies simply don’t meet the criteria needed to inform sound decision-making, yet they are published online alongside studies of higher quality.
Twenty low-quality studies that link lower IQ and fluoride, alongside only one quality study that finds no link, can look like strength in numbers and cast the wrong impression.
Assessing evidence doesn’t work like that. It’s not like voting. One study is not necessarily worth the same as another.
The problem is that scientific investigations can be carried out and published (particularly online) by any scientist, from any organisation. Most are carried out with noble intentions, but even noble intentions can be fed by bias – if you’re passionate about a cause, or feel that you’ve found an important link, established scientific practices might fall by the wayside.
Dr Wakefield and his colleagues felt that they’d found an important link after reviewing the cases of eight people who’d been diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The investigation was found to be riddled with problems; their medical assessments and analysis of results were described as incomplete and biased.
Much of the criticism of Dr Wakefield’s study suggested it ignored statistical significance.
Given that 50,000 children per month were vaccinated with MMR in England at the time, eight presentations of autism were not enough to establish a link.
Statistical significance is needed for a scientific result to have meaning. Where health is concerned, this usually means two things – that a lot of people were tested and the results were strong enough to discount coincidence and other confounding factors, such as nutrition and lead in the IQ example.
Dr Wakefield’s study was discredited, and wide scale, high-quality studies were carried out that found no link between autism and vaccination. But his study was already fuelling the fears of parents across the globe.
When something appears to threaten the health of children, it can achieve notoriety.
It’s important to carefully examine the information you are given or find yourself, but how do you sift through the jargon, the publications, the conflicting evidence?
Putting your fear aside, how do you know what and who to trust?
“While I’d love to say that I have the capacity to truthfully assess the veracity and rigour of all research that’s available online, I simply don’t have that capacity. In fact, no one does,” he says.
“Instead we’re all forced to use the decision-making heuristics we’ve always used, typically though not exclusively, trusting a variety of voices in our networks that know better.”
Dr Grant says that we rely on institutions to process this information for us.
“But if I’m a person who doesn’t trust these institutions – and the number of people who don’t trust the central institutions of society is growing globally – then I’m going to trust other things,” he says.
Other things might include organisations like FAN, who question the reliability of institutionalised knowledge.
The FAN website claims it, “develops and maintains the world’s most comprehensive online database on fluoride compounds.”
Despite making this claim, they don’t give you a comprehensive review of the quality of materials in their database.
The Australian Government’s National Medical Health Research Council (NHMRC), is a not-for-profit research organisation that draws on the expertise of people tied to the University of Melbourne, Royal North Shore Hospital, The Cancer Council, Alfred Hospital, and Monash University, among other organisations.
Firstly, it assesses the quality of studies looking into the effects of fluoridation on dental caries (decay) and other symptoms from 2006-2015, and walks through them bit by bit, weighing up their value without apparent bias.
Secondly, its conclusions reflect the “greyness” of this debate. The NHMRC says the evidence appears to indicate that Australian water fluoridation standards are safe, while also suggesting there are gaps in the research.
The recommended level of fluoridation is shown to give a 35% reduction in dental caries. This is a significant number, as it means that more than a third of dental decay can be prevented by adding fluoride to a water supply.
This has knock-on effects for the rest of a person’s health and reduces financial pressure on individuals and the economy by cutting down on visits to the dentist.
The report also shows that recommended fluoride levels can increase the incidence of tooth discolouration due to fluorosis (a chronic condition caused by excessive intake of fluoride compounds, seen as mottling of the teeth) by around 12%.
The NHRMC document also gives many of the scientific reports presented in this debate a confidence grading.
The low overall confidence grading of the reports that raise concerns about cancer and IQ perhaps take some fear out of the equation, as the ratings are low enough to discount many of the studies altogether.
The presence of studies of higher quality (ie more thorough and more reliable) have tipped the balance of evidence away from such matters of concern.
However, if the NHRMC also suggests there are gaps in the research, why can’t we just test for the negative health effects that fuel much of the fear in a robust credible way?
In Australia, people are exposed to fluoride in a number of ways, including in toothpaste and tea, and it naturally occurs in the environment around us. This means that a person’s previous exposure to fluoride is very difficult to determine. To find a bunch of people who have never been exposed to fluoride as a control group, and then to test the effects of drinking fluoridated water on them, is extremely challenging.
And as the studies linking fluoride and IQ in China, India, and Mongolia show us, these studies are problematic because there are so many other factors that can contribute to influence a person’s health.
Finding the fluoride link is not easy.
The NHMRC review gives us an indication of which way the evidence is swinging – and it’s telling us that fluoridation of our water supply will give us healthier teeth and that the only side effect of significant concern is discolouration caused by fluorosis.
It also tells us that other side effects are most likely not going to happen at Australian levels of fluoridation.
Our personal views on fluoridation are important and varied and can’t be discounted.
But it is important that we are able to critically assess the information that is given to us. If we can’t do this on our own, we can at least have a look at how others have reviewed it and make sure that we’re satisfied with how they’ve done it, which perhaps takes some of the fear out of the equation.
*Kate Burke is completing her Masters in Science Communication through the Australian National University
Peter comes from a family of community action, his late mother Shirley, established a trust before she died to fund a national portrait prizethat is held every two years, which has since grown to incorporate a youth prizein the alternate year.
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