Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 will prevent you from becoming extremely ill with the virus, while outbreaks of measles, mumps and the flu can be prevented with mass vaccination.
These were some of the messages relayed at the National Pacific Zoom Fono, chaired by Minister for Pacific Peoples Hon Aupito William Sio, and featuring insights and advice from Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Doctors Corina Grey, Teuila Percival, Faumuinā Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Colin Tukuitonga, nurses To’a Fereti and Abel Smith and numerous other leaders in the Pacific health space.
The fono’s aim was to inform New Zealand’s Pacific communities on the key vaccination programmes taking place this year – some which will occur simultaneously – including COVID-19, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and Influenza.
Pacific community, church and business leaders tuned into the zoom session to ask the health professionals questions surrounding their concerns about primarily the COVID-19 vaccine, which is due to be administered to border workers and their families, followed by other priority groups from the end of this month.
Community concerns included timing around getting vaccinated, safety and side effects, of which there are few to report, cost, effect on the workplace, vaccination workforce and locations, to name a few.
Despite having just announced Auckland’s move to alert level two (down from three) later that day, Dr Bloomfield stayed until the end of Wednesday evening’s talanoa, taking the opportunity to connect with Pacific peoples.
“I would like to acknowledge at this time the contribution of community and church leaders make to the spiritual and physical wellbeing of their communities and the role faith plays.
“This is a great opportunity to prepare people for vaccination programmes for MMR and influenza – and when we were thinking about the COVID-19 campaign in New Zealand, we did not want our country to be the root cause for COVID getting into the Pacific islands,” Dr Bloomfield says.
The New Zealand Government has earmarked US$54 million of Official Development Assistance to support Pacific COVID-19 vaccine access, including purchasing, planning, and delivery.
Zooming in from the Cook Islands, Dr Tukuitonga, the Heart Foundation’s Chief Advisor Pacific, Associate Dean Pacific at the University of Auckland's Health and Medical Sciences faculty and a government appointee to the Health Quality and Safety Commission board, joined the conversation urging church leaders to encourage their congregations to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but also other illnesses which can be prevented.
One area of concern which has emerged, is the eligibility of non-residents and overstayers in New Zealand when it comes to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Principal, Pacific Perspectives Limited Dr Debbie Ryan says every person on New Zealand soil – not matter their status – is eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine.
“The reason why you are asked for your name and date of birth, is so we can record who has been vaccinated – it will not be shared with other government agencies,” Dr Ryan says.
Of the three major vaccination programmes running in New Zealand this year, health practitioners are urging people to prioritise the COVID-19 vaccine.
Two doses are needed, three weeks apart. Four weeks is needed between receiving the MMR vaccine, while a two-week gap is needed before one can receive the flu jab.
The National Measles Immunisation Programme began in August 2020 and continues to August 2021, while vaccines against influenza will get underway this Autumn.
Minister Sio says for the programmes to be effective, awareness around why people should get the vaccines needs to be delivered to vulnerable communities, including Pacific peoples.
It is important a considered and tailored approach is taken to communicating with Pacific communities as the current vaccination context is overly complex, he says.
Based on advice from officials, a joint cross-agency communication strategy is being used to raise awareness and buy-in from Pacific communities regarding vaccinations for MMR and COVID-19.
The first stage of this strategy has been the National Pacific Zoom Fono, and the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for Pacific Peoples will now facilitate follow-up meetings with community groups, held regionally.
There will also be meetings with specific Pacific groups, held in their respective languages.
Information discussed at the fono will be distributed to community leaders to pass onto the public.