Protecting ourselves, our families and communities from infectious diseases

Dr Api Talemaitoga

3 March 2021

Immunisation saves lives. 

As New Zealand’s biggest ever vaccination programme gets underway, our Pacific communities are rising to the challenge of educating people about the public health benefits of immunisation.  

Immunisation is one of the most important ways we can protect ourselves, our families and communities from many infectious diseases. Through generations of New Zealanders getting vaccinated, we’ve stamped out many serious diseases and reduced the impact of others. 

For many clinicians, the 2019 measles outbreak is fresh in our minds as we focus on closing the immunity gap among
15-30-year olds, as well as catching up children who missed their MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) during lockdown. We’re also gearing up again to protect record numbers of our most vulnerable against influenza when this year’s campaign gets underway on 14 April. 

When we build people’s understanding and confidence in immunisation as the best way to protect against infectious diseases, we serve all our vaccination programmes. That’s why it’s crucial that Pacific peoples receive tailored information about vaccine safety and the vaccination process from trusted sources, whether that’s their health provider or someone else in their community.

I recently joined my Pacific health colleagues on a National Pacific Zoom Fono (meeting) to share information about the key vaccination programmes this year, in particular COVID-19, MMR and influenza. This was the result of collaboration between the Ministry for Pacific Peoples and Ministry of Health to support and encourage Pacific communities to actively seek vaccination to protect against these diseases. 

The Fono was chaired by Minister for Pacific Peoples Hon Aupito William Sio, with advice provided by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield alongside senior Pacific clinicians and Pacific nurses involved in the governance and implementation of the vaccination rollouts. 

More than 500 Pacific church, business and community leaders joined the Fono, giving us the opportunity to build understanding and support for our immunisation programmes. It meant  they could ask questions about immunisation and the different vaccines and have them either answered on the spot or followed up afterwards. 

The response from the Pacific community was heartening to see.  Most of the questions were about the safety of the vaccines and the implications of protecting not just oneself by getting vaccinated, but also protecting  their children and extended family.

While COVID-19 was naturally front and centre in many of the discussions, I was encouraged that people were seeking to offer reassurance to their Pacific communities about the protection immunisation provides from other infectious diseases too.  Central to this is transparency around the robust process for vaccine approval in New Zealand – including for COVID-19 vaccines – and an understanding of how vaccines work. 

We recognise clinicians need to be equipped to have the right conversations with their Pacific patients about the importance of immunisation. Forums like the Fono help us to inform doctors, nurses and others in the community to do just that and was the first of many over the coming weeks. It also allows Pacific people at a government level to speak directly to their Pacific communities. This builds trust and confidence among communities, and connection across the multi-disciplinary teams working together to combat vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. 

The sector is also working closely with the Ministry of Health to make sure clear and easily understood information around COVID-19, influenza and MMR is available to support these conversations.

It is really important that all clinicians are proactive and opportunistic when dealing with their Pacific patients who may be attending for an unrelated matter.  If they are between the ages of 15 to 30 years, offer them an MMR vaccine with a simple explanation of the protection it will give and that it is available right away and is free.

Most of these patients have competing priorities of studies, work, young children etc – so helping them opportunistically provides a good way to show your patients that you care about their health in general (not just the presenting problem).

We know that with the Pacific community, there was a spike in vaccinations after the tragedy in Samoa in 2019, so people will respond to these messages from the health provider who they can trust and feel have their best interests at heart.