9 Oct 2014

Pasifika health 'going backwards'

10:38 am on 9 October 2014

A leading public health expert says the health of Pasifika peoples in New Zealand is going backwards and turning that around should be a top priority of the new government.

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Colin Tukuitonga heads the Pacific Community of 26 member countries, based in Noumea.

He told the inaugural Population Health Congress in Auckland the health sector has to change the way it deals with Pasifika communities.

Dr Tukuitonga is the former chief executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs and one-time director of public health for the Ministry of Health.

Despite two decades of efforts to lift Pacific people's health, he said it is not getting better.

He said it reflects the widening income gap between Pasifika and the rest of New Zealand, along with high unemployment, crowded houses and poor access to nutritional food, and it is time for a rethink of how New Zealand deals with inequality.

Dr Tukuitonga said tighter tobacco control would be the single most effective step to improving Pasifika health.

Director of Action on Smoking and Health Stephanie Erick said despite an overall drop in smoking among Pasifika people at the 2013 census, there has been no change among certain sub-groups.

Ms Erick said there is a need for leadership to address the environmental barriers to better health for Pasifika people.

Head of Pacific health for the National Heart Foundation Louisa Ryan, said another big gap is the lack of a national plan for NCDs - or non-communicable diseases.

NCDs such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory infection are the main health problems facing Pasifika people.

Dr Tukuitonga wants more support for Pasifika-led health organisations, that are using their cultural and community ties to get better results with quit smoking programmes.

But Ms Erick said the vast majority of Pasifika families are enrolled with mainstream health providers and it is important to improve the services they offer.