Inside the COVID-19 vaccine Pasifika roadshow

12 July 2020

By Angela Paul, Manager Health System Engagement, Ministry of Health 

As a GP commuting between practices in Auckland and Christchurch, he is used to long-distance travel. Yet College Distinguished Fellow Dr Apisalome Talemaitoga admits the kilometres he’s put in for the COVID-19 vaccine Pasifika roadshow in recent weeks goes far beyond what’s ordinary.

Working on behalf of the Ministry of Health’s Pacific Team, Dr Talemaitoga has been from north to south, east to west, on a mission to clear up misinformation about the vaccine and to give Pacific communities knowledge to enable them to make informed choices about the vaccine.

Recent surveys show Pacific communities unsure about taking the vaccine has dropped from 30% to under 10%. “The roadshow is bringing everyone together, the DHBs, local health providers, and communities, and it’s making a real difference,” says Dr Talemaitoga.

“I can talk about the vaccine, but it’s the local health providers that will be in charge and organise the vaccinations. When we go and meet the Pacific communities, we’re showing a team approach, they can ask questions of their local DHBs and understand what the process is for getting their vaccinations.”  

The roadshow began with a series of online fono (meetings) with Pacific communities prompted by Associate Minister of Health Aupito William Sio. Minister Sio was keen to ensure Pacific health providers were well informed, so they could help with the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Pacific communities.

The online fonos, held via Zoom, proved a great success with over 600 people attending the first one.

Taupo Fono with Associate Minister of Health Aupito William Sio (fourth from right)

“The meetings were done in different languages, so we reached as many people as possible and it gave them the opportunity to ask the hard questions,” Dr Talemaitoga says. “But it became very clear from the feedback that it can be hard for Auntie Sefina to get online, and we were asked to  do face-to-face meetings. That’s how the roadshow came about.”

There have been about 25 fonos already. “We had a great one in Dunedin on 17 June, linking with local Pacific providers, the local Pacific community and the DHB. It’s about countering some of the misinformation online, asking people not to share it, and pointing to a trusted source instead – like their GP or pharmacist, and the people who have their best interests at heart.

“Getting people to hear vaccine advice from someone who looks and sounds like them is key. In Porirua, the majority in the Pacific community are Samoan, so I asked Dr Debbie Ryan, who is Samoan, to join us. In Taupō, a lot of the community are from Tokelau, so Dr Mary Toloa came along with us. You can literally feel the engagement level in the room lift when the presenter talks their language.

“Pasifika carry a burden of health that other populations don't, like diabetes, respiratory conditions and heart disease – they can get really sick from COVID-19. That’s the first thing they need to know. Then it’s ‘what is the impact?’, not just on yourself, but on your colleagues, your family and your whānau. We get them to consider examples such as those who work as carers in rest homes, or go into people’s houses, and ask if they’ve thought about the impact their health can have on other people.”

The communication and engagement work continues as the vaccine rollout progresses, with radio and TV advertising reaching Pacific communities, as well as translated resources being available on the United Against COVID website. 

Dr Talemaitoga says it’s the doctor’s relationship with the patient that’s most important. “All GPs are a trusted source of information, not just Pacific GPs.  Use your relationship with the patient in front of you to answer their questions. Sometimes it’s really busy and it would be too easy to brush them off because we’re in a hurry, but if we just spend five minutes to reiterate that this is really important, it can make all the difference.”