Low health literacy a silent killer

posted: 7:00 pm - 1st March 2020
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(Picture caption: Pacific health advocate and entrepreneur Esmeralda Lo Tam wants to start raising the levels of health literacy among New Zealand’s Pacific communities.)

Low health literacy is not uncommon in New Zealand and it has been identified as the “silent killer” underlying many of the undiagnosed and unsuccessfully treated medical conditions.

New Zealand raised Samoan Pacific health advocate and entrepreneur Esmeralda Lo Tam has been working tirelessly to start raising the levels of health literacy among New Zealand’s Pacific communities.

Part of this process was hosting the recent Pacific Youth Health Expo, a two-day event in Onehunga, Auckland which attracted approximately 120 attendees.

The idea to host an expo came with thinking of the measles epidemic in the Pacific, Esmeralda, who holds a master’s degree in Public Health, majoring in Pacific Health, explains.

“From a public health perspective, targeting communicable diseases needs to be done at a primordial level. 

“People will use services and resources if they know it exists and if they know the implications of not seeking health care and this is where health literacy comes into play, to look at health from a different perspective - to be fun, culturally appropriate and interactive but still be informative.” 

The Ministry of Health defines health literacy as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions, and low health literacy can lead to: inappropriate use of health care services; lack of self-efficacy and self-esteem; improper use of medication; and poor self-management of chronic conditions. 

“In public health we continue to see Pacific rates rise in both communicable (contagious) and non-communicable diseases (NCDS; non-contagious) and while Pacific lead in statistics of both communicable and NCDS, our use of health resources and facilities are disproportionate to burden of disease,” Esmeralda says. 

“This means, we are suffering more and using less resources for our own benefit.” 

Aiming to look at health from a wellbeing perspective and solutions rather than looking at the problems, Esmeralda decided to host the expo, and bring Pacific health professionals, educators, parents, community groups and all those who support Pacific wellbeing together with Pacific youth.

The idea was to set a safe, personal and fun environment to learn about health disabilities and diseases plaguing Pacific communities. 

At the expo, key note speaker former Miss Samoa and Miss South Pacific Janine Tuivaiti spoke about the role as a tama’ita’i Samoa (a young Samoan girl) and pressures of mental health young women go through trying to find a balance of respect for culture and also self-identity as strong and capable young women.

Esmeralda has always worked to serve the community and promoting health awareness and literacy – particularly among Pacific youth - is something she is truly passionate about.

The expo has been an opportunity to encourage individuals to ask for help when they need it, to start conversations in families about health, change priorities in Pacific mindset when it comes to health, mitigate risk factors leading to suicide and mental illnesses and minimise avoidable hospitalisations.

It also provided the platform to network with other health professionals and build upon potential collaborations with Pacific providers, to help improve health literacy and awareness.

Looking forward, Esmeralda will run an event in July with Auckland Council and Tupu Services, Takanga a Fohe focused around problem gambling and other health concerns such as seeking help for alcohol abuse, plus she is already planning another youth event in January 2021.

“I am so excited to keep working in this space because I see the difference it makes to individuals, families and communities,” she says.