Community leaders, medical experts battling to spread truth about COVID-19 vaccine in Pacific communities

Eleisha Foon for RNZ

The race is on to reach Pasifika communities to counter the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pacific and Māori communities have the highest risk of dying from COVID-19 and that has caused leaders and doctors within this group to work hard to dispel fears and misinformation about what it might mean to get the jab.

"People can have confidence that the vaccine is effective and safe," said Auckland University public health professor Dr Colin Tukuitonga, who has 40 years' experience in medicine.

The amount of research, testing and studies behind the vaccine was "phenomenal", he said.

People with reservations have every right to ask questions - but can rest assured there is nothing to be worried about, he said.

"It is highly effective. There is increasing evidence that it reduces transmission to others and protects us all as a nation and community."

There have also been very few side effects so far, besides a headache and sore arm and most medication and vaccines have side effects anyway, he said.

"In Israel where they have pretty much vaccinated everyone, they have found the vaccine to reduce hospitalisation and infection."

Widespread vaccination against COVID-19 was an important tool in efforts to control the pandemic.

What to know about COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine

  • New Zealand has secured 10 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine - enough for 5m people to get two doses.

  • The vaccine is for people over 16 years because it is yet to be tested on a younger age group.

  • Like all medicines, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may cause side effects like a headache and/or sore arm in some people. These are common, are usually mild and don't last long.

  • Nine out of 10 people will be protected.

  • There has been at least 250m doses given around the world.

  • New Zealand's Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority, Medsafe is closely monitoring the safety of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

  • Impacts of the vaccine are monitored and reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Cultural nuances when communicating to Island communities

The Pacific peoples' ethnic group is the fourth largest major ethnic group in New Zealand, behind European, Māori and Asian ethnic groups.

The Ministry of Health has been on a mission to communicate helpful information to people about the vaccination.

Anyone calling the COVID Healthline can speak with someone in their own language, with access to interpreters for over 150 languages, including te reo Māori and the nine main Pacific languages.

Māori and Pacific providers hold trusted relationships with the whānau they serve and play a crucial role to maximize uptake and achieve equity, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said.

Dr Tukuitonga praised Associate Minister of Health Hon Aupito William Sio for organising meetings with Pacific leaders and groups about the vaccine - which sometimes included up to 500 people over Zoom.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said it planned to support district health boards to engage with people who may be hesitant about getting a vaccine dose.

But Manukau councillor Efeso Collins was "not convinced" that the Ministry of Health had been taking the "right approach" to connect with Māori and Pacific communities - although small improvements were only just being made.

"Those of us who were raised in the islands have an oral tradition. The Ministry of Health need to understand that just sending out information on a sheet of A4 or link on a website isn't the way you engage with these communities."

He wanted "trusted community champions" to be sent into communities to have a korero and discussion around the table.

Change could only truly happen in family homes, he said, where they can air any fears around the vaccine and address certain distrust when it comes to public institutions.

"If we don't take a conversation approach then we will always allow misinformation to win the battle and that's where I believe the Ministry of Health have fallen over, because we haven't trusted local organisations to go into the community and talk to the families."

Church influence and community champions

About 70 percent of Pacific Islanders attend church regularly, so leaders of these congregations are being reminded of the influential role they play as a vaccine messenger.

Efeso Collins planned to help those on the fence about the vaccine in his South Auckland electorate.

He encouraged the importance of "a conversation after church ... with a coffee and a muffin to talk through distrust to make a difference".

Social workers and community groups who already have trusted connections with whānau would also be valuable in helping vulnerable people who had digested misinformation.

There were still small groups across the country who did not believe in vaccines and their views had led to the spread of misinformation and wild allegations, founded on rumours and falsehoods.

"The Tamakis of this world are a nuisance," Dr Tukuitonga said, but believed overall that most Pacific peoples would choose the vaccine.