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South Seas Healthcare families
Families that have visited the Pacific Hub in South Auckland. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJune 2, 2023

Inside the struggle to get New Zealand vaccinated

South Seas Healthcare families
Families that have visited the Pacific Hub in South Auckland. (Image: Archi Banal)

The Rally Your Village campaign to get South Auckland communities well for winter is a success – but organisers say low MMR immunisation rates are still a real worry.

I arrive at the Pacific Hub in Ōtara Road and am greeted by the smell of meat on the barbecue, the sight of coffee being made and the sound of Pacific Love Band’s ‘O Aso Uma’ playing through the speakers. It feels familiar to me, as if I’m attending a cousin’s birthday. Just as I sign in as a visitor, a woman walks in with her mother. “I’m not sure what I’m here for, but I was told to bring my mum in,” she says to the receptionist. Not fazed at all, the receptionist reassures the ladies that they’ll soon be taken care of by one of their connectors (healthcare support staff) and they’re ushered through to the next station.

It is week three of the 12-week Rally Your Village: Community Matters campaign led by Ōtara’s largest Pacific health provider, South Seas Healthcare Trust. Community leaders in South Auckland have joined South Seas to offer a fun way for the community to get their health checked and records updated, as well as register to attend an upcoming Super Rugby Pacific match. It’s a very different approach to health and social services from the quiet waiting rooms you’d expect at your GP. 

Rally Your Village aims to provide a positive healthcare and wellbeing experience for the local community that is mainly made up of Pasifika people. “We still have our clinic operating daily, but we also wanted to give Pasifika people the option to get checked up with this village setup we’ve created,” says general manager Earnest Pidakala. ”For people to rally up their families, church groups, sports clubs and so forth to come through, not with the intention of getting immunised, but to come in and connect with healthcare professionals and social service providers onsite.”

It’s a one-stop shop for all the community’s health and wellbeing needs. The venue, which once was the Manukau Institute of Technology’s library, is decorated with lavalava on the walls and placards with different Pacific greetings printed on them. Blues rugby flags sit at every corner and there are multiple stations where visitors can get a health status update, housing help, school support for children and youth, stop-smoking support, or get themselves up to date with their vaccinations. Preparing for the winter by providing flu, Covid-19, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and BCG (bacillus calmette-guérin – it helps protect against severe forms of tuberculosis) immunisations is one of South Seas’ main goals with this campaign.

MSD representatives ready to help visitors with financial support
The Ministry of Social Development station at the Rally Your Village event. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

In April, immunisation rates for MMR in Aotearoa were as low as they have ever been recorded, says paediatrician Owen Sinclair. A University of Otago study found the coverage for the first measles vaccine is declining, with only around 89% of those born in 2020 receiving it. In comparison, around 95% of those born in 2017 had received the vaccine.

This is concerning given the 2019-2020 New Zealand measles outbreak that affected mainly the Auckland region. It was considered to be the worst measles outbreak since 1938, with more than 30% of those infected with measles being admitted to hospital. The outbreak also spread to several other countries including Sāmoa, where more than 70 people died.

Clinical director Tagaloa Dr Andrew Chan-Mow says that while the response to Rally Your Village has been overwhelmingly positive, with thousands of people engaging with the hub since late April, MMR vaccination rates for Pacific people have been slow. “The unfortunate byproduct of the Covid lockdowns and self-isolation is that vaccinations for MMR have dropped off people’s radars,” he says. “The babies that are born pre-Covid are now at that age where they should be receiving their MMR, so we’re playing catch-up at the moment.”

General practitioners (GPs) are under the pump as well trying to get families up to date with the MMR immunisations, and Chan-Mow hopes that in the coming weeks families can utilise the Hub to take some of the strain off primary healthcare. “When babies come for their MMR, they’re well and healthy, so instead of waiting for an appointment for your baby, come get your Covid booster or flu jab and get your child’s MMR done at the same time.”

I speak with registered nurse Jennifer Macintyre, who has been administering the vaccinations onsite. It’s shortly after 1pm and she says the main vaccination given out so far is the flu shot, followed closely by the Covid booster shot. “Not many babies are coming through for their MMR,” she says. There is a Kids Zone next to the Youth Hub station that has a giant Connect 4, chess and bean ball toss cornhole games, yet the space is vacant. There is also a selfies corner with life-size Pacific character cut-outs on display, which doesn’t appear to be actively used by a younger audience. Pidakala later tells me that only one MMR vaccine was administered all week.

Pacific cutout character boards at a South Seas event
Pacific cut-outs aimed at getting visitors engaged by taking a selfie with them to share their experience at the event, (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Children should receive two doses of the MMR vaccine, with the first dose at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second dose at four to six years of age. The vaccine is free and recommended for people born after January 1, 1969, and is particularly important for those planning to travel overseas.

As the day progresses, I watch as families walk through, stop at the reception desk to check in and then proceed to what South Seas calls the “pre-triage” area. There sit three tables, supervised by “connectors” who will start the “road map of support” survey with anyone who enters. That includes a few questions to understand the purpose of the visit and then an explanation of what stations are available onsite that could provide support. “This is what we mean by road map. We’ve organised the venue similar to an expo where visitors travel to the stations they need to complete their road map of support,” Pidakala says. “By having the options readily available for the community, it means they’re able to complete a number of things in one day.”

Pidakala says that although people are given a support road map to navigate their way around the Hub, it is not mandatory to visit each station. “The only mandatory stop is to check in with our connectors, so that they can make you aware of the services that are available,” he says. “You may not need a particular service at the time you visit, but maybe in the future you are catching up with a relative and they need housing support, you can refer them to the Pacific Hub for that opportunity. 

“Having the social services, community partners, Whānau Ora present means our community can deal with the service directly rather than getting a referral and waiting for weeks to be seen. This is essentially like a warm handover from our South Seas connectors. You get to have your story heard and captured in your visit and then followed up as part of your care plan.”

Pacific patients waiting to be seen at the South Seas event
Enrolled families at South Seas Healthcare waiting to be seen at the Rally Your Village event. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Once you complete your road map – whether that is visiting the Ministry of Social Development connectors, who can offer temporary financial support through short-term care plans, or getting your flu shot done – you will head to either the Rally Your Village or South Seas station to complete a final check list, to ensure you’ve received all the help you need, before getting a goodie bag and free rugby tickets to the next Blues home game. The Rally Your Village station is for people not enrolled with South Seas, but they still receive the same amount of support as enrolled patients. It’s one way to help reduce capacity pressure on GP clinics by ensuring people can access the right support where and when they need it, and in ways that work best for them.

However, one thing I can’t help but notice; I don’t see a baby all day. With the low turnout for the MMR vaccine, Pidakala says South Seas is reviewing its promotional approach to look at how it can better present its MMR vaccine information, in particular for the at-risk populations. 

South Seas purposely removed the word vaccinations from the venue as they noticed it scared people away and it did not speak to Pacific people. “This is the people’s place where we support everyone from all walks of life for their vaccinations, food support, housing or schooling. It’s warm and welcoming just like the people who will serve you at the Hub,” Dr Chan-Mow says.

I see parents with their teenage kids sitting at the South Seas station, an elderly man in a wheelchair being cared for by a connector and another adult finishing up his immunisations before walking off with a Blues flag poking out of his backpack. Chan-Mow says that although this is a South Seas-led campaign, the services are open to all. “We’ve even had people from outside of South Auckland come through,” he says. “I mean, Pacific people are everywhere now, not just here in Ōtara.”

South Seas Healthcare patient
A steady flow of people coming through to check if they’re up to date with their immunisations. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

The local Congregational Church of Sāmoa’s youth group are coming through later tonight for their health check-ups. It’s youth night at the church and this will be the activity that they do together for the week. It’s a perfect example of rallying your village – organising a group to come together and have health and wellbeing professionals check in with you.

Chan-Mow describes the campaign as a way to empower communities with the tools to better the health and wellbeing of their people. “We nominate leaders of each group, whether it’s the local Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Sāmoa (EFKS) or the rugby league club down the road, and we relay the health and wellbeing messages to them to share to their group. This is the way it was done for Pacific people in the islands – when there was a campaign, it was a village campaign,” he says.

“Our communities know what they need to thrive and the families we support have told us that they value opportunities to spend time together with the community. We have listened and created a winter illness campaign around experiences the whole family can enjoy.”

The campaign runs Wednesdays to Saturdays, with Saturday being the busiest day by far thanks to people having time off from work and school. In the second week of running Rally Your Village, South Seas supported more than 170 households in various health services.

The timing of the campaign is important too, with winter just beginning. “We’re proud of the activation of getting ready for winter because the capacity to ensure our people are looked after is a priority and by starting early, we’re able to do health checkups ahead of time, so we don’t overwhelm the system in the colder months,” Pidakala says.

Pacific people waiting to get their flu vaccine
Pacific people waiting at the vaccination centre inside the Pacific Hub. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

The Hub has late nights available and this time it is on Wednesday and Friday. This is to cater to working families, those with childcare commitments or anyone who cannot make the daytime opening hours, so that they too don’t miss out on the free food, giveaways and music. 

“South Seas has been in existence for 24 years and we’re acutely aware of the privilege we have and our responsibility as a service provider in this community, so this is our way of giving back to the community and giving them that VIP experience,” says Pidakala. Adds Chan-Mow, “The bottom line is community engagement. We don’t want to push people away. We want to make healthcare accessible to our community.”

This week the campaign is youth-focused, encouraging younger people in the community groups supported by South Seas’ Bubblegum programme to visit the Hub this week with their families to get their vaccinations and register to attend the Blues vs Highlanders match on Friday night. “We are also working with our community partners to encourage young people connected to churches, our clinic, stop smoking service to visit the Hub this week,” Pidakala says.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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