Concern for addiction sufferers, mental health patients as vax rates trail general population

By Will Trafford

As Aotearoa battles community transmission of the Omicron variant, too many Māori who experience mental distress or addiction remain unvaccinated, according to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission.

93% of the eligible population is now double vaccinated with over one million people boosted. However, figures from the Ministry of Health reveal Māori battling addiction have a vaccination rate 26 per cent lower than the general population, while Māori suffering mental illness have a 17 per cent lower rate.

“There is evidence that some people who use specialist mental health services and addiction services are being left behind,” says Hayden Wano, Chair of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission.

“We must be vigilant to ensure that no one is left behind.”

Lower vaccination rates are not exclusive to Māori, non-Māori seeking mental health treatment have 9 per cent lower vaccination rates than the general population and those suffering from addiction 19 per cent lower. But the disparity between Māori and non-Māori only exacerbates concern, according to Wano.

“There will be a number of reasons for these lower rates, but we are of the view that access is a particular concern, combined with a level of hesitancy and lack of trust. We have no reason to believe that a significant portion are vaccine resistant as such.

“We know that populations such as Māori and Pacific peoples regularly experience exclusion and racism. We know that these are factors in their mental health challenges. Vaccination is a wellbeing issue, and if these groups are again finding themselves outside the mainstream on vaccination and more vulnerable to COVID-19, then this is going to reduce their sense of wellbeing and their mental health."

The commission praised Māori providers and community-led initiatives in their success reaching out to communities which other health providers couldn’t. Wano says they are the key to closing the gap for those suffering from mental health and addiction issues.

“We cannot speak highly enough about the targeted efforts of Māori and Pacific community providers as well as other service providers and churches, who have contributed to a huge turnaround in rates of vaccination for Māori and Pacific communities. This is the kind of targeted approach that is needed to ensure that people who experience mental distress and those who experience addictions have equitable and timely access to the vaccination," said Wano.

“Only then, can we say that Aotearoa has done its best in ensuring that no one is being left behind.”