19 Feb 2021

Covid-19 vaccines: Pacific leaders hold fono on raising awareness

10:33 am on 19 February 2021

Pasifika health leaders are discussing how to best combat misinformation spreading and increase confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines.

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Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio spoke with health leaders. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Surveys show Māori and Pasifika are more worried than others about the safety of the vaccine.

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio - who is also associate minister of health and education for Pacific people - convened a zoom meeting yesterday with health leaders as part of a joint cross-agency communication strategy to raise awareness and buy-in from Pacific communities regarding vaccinations.

Sio said for the immunisation campaign to be effective, awareness around why people should get the vaccines needed to be delivered to vulnerable communities, including Pacific peoples.

It was important a considered and tailored approach was taken with Pasifika in mind, because the current context was overly complex, he said.

Auckland University associate professor of public health Colin Tukuitonga told Morning Report the minister and leaders were "discussing the vaccine in terms of effectiveness and safety" at the fono.

He said Pacific leaders played a key role in the process of encouraging people to get vaccinated.

In the next step of the strategy, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for Pacific Peoples will facilitate meetings with community groups, held regionally and in their respective languages.

University of Auckland immunology and vaccine specialist Helen Petousis-Harris told Morning Report people could rest assured the vaccine was safe, with proof from clinical trials and real world experience.

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Vaccine specialist Helen Petousis-Harris says people can have confidence in the vaccine. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

"There world has now used up about 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, tens of millions of the one we're just receiving [Pfizer], and they're being watched very closely by many eyes for safety and it's looking very good."

Proactive communication was being planned to combat misinformation, Dr Petousis-Harris said.

"Importantly, we know that's got to reach lots of different people using lots of different messages, it's got to get to everybody and of course that's a real challenge but certainly it's being planned.

"I think we need to be maybe a little bit further ahead at the moment, I think we're seeing a lot of misinformation really spreading quite fast."

National MP and former Northland GP Shane Reti said the answer was to reassure people and that could be as simple as sitting down and talking.

"Pause and hold your breath for a minute and just let the room go quiet, quiet is okay, you don't need to fill that space, let them ponder, let them digest at their own speed."

Deputy director-general of Māori health John Whaanga said the Ministry of Health would be using Māori networks to reassure tangata whenua the vaccine was safe.

Whaanga said that would be done by spreading the message and working around health literacy.

"There's a big area of work we have to do there in terms of communicating with our people, getting them to feel comfortable."

Push for Māori and Pacific people to be prioritised

With the first doses due to be administered today in New Zealand, public health expert Colin Tukuitonga says Māori and Pacific people should be next in line after border workers and their families.

A healthcare worker injects a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to an emergency doctor in Colombia on February 18, 2021.

A healthcare worker injects a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to an emergency doctor in Colombia on February 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Juancho Torres / Anadolu Agency

"I think we've had experiences dating back 1918, 1957 and the 2009 influenza outbreak plus the current information on Covid tells us Māori and Pacific folk are at increased risk of Covid, and that's really why we're making this suggestion."

Although, Tukuitonga said they recognised that there would be various other groups wanting to be prioritised too.

"We are mindful that many in the frontline queue are Māori and Pacific folk so they would be receiving the vaccine as part of that group."

Tukuitonga said there were plenty of lessons from history about the dangers of health inequities.

"I think there's quite a lot of discussion within the circles about the whole prioritisation process, we are pushing as hard as we can, pointing out that 'are we serious about inequities' ... as the phrase goes if we don't learn from history, we're bound to repeat it."

According to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, Māori would be highly represented in the first phase of the vaccine roll-out because there were high concentrations of Māori working at the airport and managed isolation facilities.

He also said there would be a specific vaccination rollout plan for Māori focused on giving them confidence in receiving the vaccine.

The first batch of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is offloaded after arriving in New Zealand on 15 February

The first batch of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine offloaded after arriving in New Zealand on 15 February. Photo: SUPPLIED

The National Māori Pandemic group has said the protection of Māori would be at the centre of planning for the vaccine rollout.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson previously said "ensuring equity of outcomes, especially for Māori and Pacific peoples, and appropriate protection for our most vulnerable, are key priorities in our planning."

"To achieve equity, the Ministry of Health is designing a service that provides for groups the system has often failed to reach, such as Māori in remote rural areas."

Helen Petousis-Harris said it made sense to have at-risk groups at the centre of those plans.

"When we think about the rollout and how all those priority groups have been decided, you've got Treaty of Waitangi at the centre of that and also the acknowledgement that those groups - with many diseases including Covid - you're going to have those really severe effects happening at a much younger age.

"What you're probably going to see when you start rolling this out that you, for example, make efforts like that to include those high risk group, lower the age."

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