Ann Rheum Dis 58:266-270 doi:10.1136/ard.58.5.266
  • Now and then

Rheumatic disease and the Australian Aborigine

  1. Rachel A Roberts-Thomsona,
  2. P J Roberts-Thomsonb
  1. aUniversity of Adelaide, Australia, bDepartment of Immunology, Allergy and Arthritis, Flinders Medical Centre, South Australia
  1. Professor P J Roberts-Thomson, Department of Immunology, Allergy and Arthritis, Flinders Medical Centre, Flinders Drive, Bedford Park, SA 5042, Australia.
  • Accepted 10 February 1999


OBJECTIVE To document the frequency and disease phenotype of various rheumatic diseases in the Australian Aborigine.

METHODS A comprehensive review was performed of the archaeological, ethnohistorical, and contemporary literature relating to rheumatic diseases in these indigenous people.

RESULTS No evidence was found to suggest that rheumatoid arthritis (RA), ankylosing spondylitis (AS), or gout occurred in Aborigines before or during the early stages of white settlement of Australia. Part of the explanation for the absence of these disorders in this indigenous group may relate to the scarcity of predisposing genetic elements, for example, shared rheumatoid epitope for RA, B27 antigen for AS. In contrast, osteoarthritis appeared to be common particularly involving the temporomandibular joint, right elbow and knees and, most probably, was related to excessive joint loading in their hunter gatherer lifestyle. Since white settlement, high frequency rates for rheumatic fever, systemic lupus erythematosus, and pyogenic arthritis have been observed and there are now scanty reports of the emergence of RA and gout in these original Australians.

CONCLUSION The occurrence and phenotype of various rheumatic disorders in Australian Aborigines is distinctive but with recent changes in diet, lifestyle, and continuing genetic admixture may be undergoing change. An examination of rheumatic diseases in Australian Aborigines and its changing phenotype may lead to a greater understanding of the aetiopathogenesis of these disorders.