Aboriginal health groups fighting ‘pockets of vaccine hesitancy’ in remote areas of NT as uptake plateaus | Northern Territory

Aboriginal community health organisations say they are working to combat “pockets of vaccine hesitancy” in vulnerable and remote parts of the Northern Territory, where doctors fear a Covid outbreak could have devastating consequences.

The speed of the Territory’s vaccine rollout seems be plateauing more quickly than in other states, largely due to much slower rates of uptake in some remote Indigenous communities.

“I hear [from people in remote communities] who say that ‘it’s a white man’s disease’ … or ‘I’m young I won’t get infected’,” says John Paterson, the chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (Amsant).

“Particularly within those remote communities there are patches of hesitancy still. That’s due to a lack of information, from the feedback we’re getting.

“It’s often not that they don’t want [the vaccine], it’s about them wanting more information, more time to think about it.”

Paterson says such sentiments are expected in areas which have not experienced an outbreak; and where daily life has been relatively uninterrupted by the pandemic. He said governments and community organisations were working hard to get messages to communities, including information in language and other culturally appropriate formats, to help them understand the risk.

“Our message is that this deadly virus, if it gets in those remote communities, will have a devastating effect,” he says.

“Because of the overcrowding it’s going to be difficult to self-isolate. The lack of a surge workforce in remote communities is a big challenge.

“We’ve also observed what happened in western New South Wales. In those places, the virus really tackled those where people were unvaccinated and had a serious impact for people who had other chronic issues or other health issues. That’s the case with our mob.

“We’ve got a large population who are vulnerable.”

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Of all Territorians older than 16, 78% have had a single dose of a vaccine; 65% have had a second dose.

In the Big Rivers and East Arnhem regions, 41% have had a first dose and 34% are fully vaccinated.

The differences in vaccination rates present a particular cause for concern, given the vulnerabilities of remote communities and the need, some say, for higher coverage before loosening restrictions in the Top End and Central Australia.

NT chief minister Michael Gunner has previously flagged the need for higher coverage than other states, citing vulnerabilities in remote communities and the comparatively young average population.

In some remote parts of the NT, the average age of community members is in the early 20s. That means a larger percentage of the population – those too young to receive a vaccine – is excluded from vaccine uptake figures.

Amsant and other groups has previously called on the NT government to adopt a 90% to 95% vaccine threshold for remote communities.

Local health experts have backed that call, saying that a blanket lifting of restrictions at 70% coverage would have devastating effects on Indigenous and other vulnerable populations.

“The outcomes for Indigenous people may therefore resemble the early effects of British colonialism, when a high proportion of the population died from introduced infections,” they wrote in The Conversation last month.

They said a First Nations vaccination program is needed to guarantee supply of vaccines, address vaccine hesitancy and “ensure health services have the capacity and the workforce to carry out intensive outreach vaccination programs.”

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