Modern medicine is taking a leaf out of Indigenous Australians’ book. Tea tree oil – long recognised for its healing properties by Aboriginal people – is being investigated as a treatment for scabies.
Scabies is an excruciatingly itchy skin condition that affects more than two-thirds of rural Aboriginal kids in Australia. Left untreated, it can lead to infected wounds, blood poisoning, and chronic heart and kidney problems.
Researchers at the University of Canberra have developed a tea tree-based gel for treating scabies that is inspired by traditional bush wisdom.
“[It’s] a perfect connection point between Aboriginal bush medicine and Western medical perspectives,” says Professor Tom Calma, who is one of four Aboriginal researchers in the study team.
The researchers are about to test the gel in a clinical trial involving more than 200 Aboriginal children affected by scabies in the Northern Territory.
In earlier lab studies, the team showed that the gel kills the tiny mites that cause scabies by burrowing into the skin and laying eggs.
Treatments for scabies already exist, but they are inconvenient to use or unsuitable for children. The team hopes the gel’s ease of use and grounding in Indigenous know-how will make it acceptable to Aboriginal communities.
“We have had nothing but very positive feedback and engagement from the Aboriginal community members we have worked with,” says lead investigator Dr Jackson Thomas.