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'Genuinely worried': SA Aboriginal vax below target

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Less than 40 per cent of South Australia’s Aboriginal population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest data, prompting calls for greater protection of remote communities when the state reopens its borders in three weeks.

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Federal government figures show that as of last Tuesday, only 37.8 per cent of Aboriginal people in the state over the age of 15 are fully vaccinated, while 51.3 per cent have received a first dose.

It falls nearly 30 percentage points short of the statewide vaccination rate, which on Tuesday passed 80 per cent single dose for over-16s with 63.8 per cent fully vaccinated.

More than 12,700 Aboriginal people over the age of 15 in South Australia are yet to receive a jab, according to the data.

The latest federal government breakdown of Aboriginal vaccination rates by area reveals the Adelaide North region is faring worst with just 33.3 per cent fully vaccinated.

First dose rates for the area’s Aboriginal demographic have also only reached 46.7 per cent, totalling 3026 of the 6475 people in the region aged over 15.

By comparison, the overall Adelaide North region as of Sunday is more than 20 percentage points ahead on both first dose (75 per cent) and second dose (58.5 per cent) vaccination.

Flinders University senior lecturer and epidemiologist Dr Emma Miller said lagging Indigenous jab rates came down to three “compounding” issues: low socioeconomic status, lack of resources and cultural sensitivity.

“These are low socioeconomic areas … so there are a lack of resources both in terms of health information and actual access to health services that can provide these vaccines,” she said.

“The second thing that’s going on is that these are generally remote communities, and that is the same thing suffered across those areas where we are referring to access issues.

“Then there’s the third issue which is about having culturally sensitive information that’s available to this group who have a long history of dispossession and a distrust of top end people coming in and telling them what’s right and what’s wrong.”

The South Australian Outback – the state’s most populous Aboriginal statistical area with 6705 Indigenous people – is only at 50.3 per cent first dosed and 35.9 per cent fully vaccinated.

This also lags more than 20 points behind the region’s overall jab rate which shows 57.1 per cent fully vaccinated with 70.8 per cent with at least one dose. 

Miller said the vaccination disparity echoes similar inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in health outcomes for chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

“This is an ongoing thing about all sorts of health issues,” she said.

“A lot of that is about remoteness of services, it’s about the affordability of transport to services, it’s the ability to match those services with people’s lifestyles and especially when they’re in remote communities.

“If you plot the postcodes against income [and] socioeconomic status in South Australia and elsewhere, you will see the obvious social gradient of health that Aboriginal people have been talking about forever.

“So the coverage of vaccines actually decreases the lower the socioeconomic level in a completely positive correlation.”

Two other Indigenous statistical areas – SA’s South East and Adelaide’s West – have not passed 40 per cent fully vaccinated.

The Adelaide Central and Hills region is the only area to reach 50 per cent double dose vaccination for their Aboriginal population.

The disparity comes less than four weeks away from when South Australia will reopen its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from the eastern states on November 23.

The November date is when authorities project the state wide vaccination average will reach 80 per cent for over-16s.

However, none of the Aboriginal statistical areas in South Australia are on track to reach that target by November 23.

Since the federal government began publishing Aboriginal vaccination data on August 30, the percentage of fully vaccinated Indigenous over-15s in the Adelaide North region has been growing on average by 2.17 per cent.

At that pace, only 42 per cent of the Aboriginal population in the region would be double-dosed by November 23.

Aboriginal vaccination rates in the Outback are climbing slightly quicker at 2.54 per cent, although this only puts the region on track to reach 46.1 per cent double-dosed by the border reopening date.

The Adelaide Central and Hills region on current average pace would come closest to 80 per cent by November 23 with a projected double-dose vaccination at 62.6 per cent.

Miller said she was “genuinely worried” how the border reopening would impact health outcomes for the state’s Aboriginal population, suggesting the community and the State Government should consider a “ring of steel” around remote communities.

“When they talk about ‘oh we’re going to open up, we’re not going to have wholescale lockdowns’, I think we are going to have lockdowns for those communities in which those vaccination coverages are that low, particularly in Indigenous communities,” she said.

“The most vulnerable groups, those that are most likely to have terrible [sickness] from actually being infected with COVID, are the least protected.”

SA Health deputy chief executive Don Frater told a parliamentary committee in September that SA Health was concerned about the spread of vaccine conspiracies and misinformation within Aboriginal communities.

He also said SA Health was sending Aboriginal staff into those communities to build awareness and support for vaccination.

Miller warned that overcoming cultural sensitivities would take a considerable amount of work.

“It’s important to remember that these things take time,” she said.

“Relationships have to be built, all those things have to be developed and [have] a buy in from the community.

“We should be able to allow them the time to build those relationships that are necessary to form the trust and to be able to talk about this and to be able to include them in our vaccination programme.”

The Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia has previously called for the federal government to boost vaccine supplies to remote communities.

SA Health said increased supplies of the Pfizer vaccine from the federal government and collaboration with the Royal Flying Doctor Service will help deliver more vaccinations to Indigenous communities “in the coming month”.

“We have been working closely with Local Health Networks and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations to rollout the COVID-19 vaccine to Aboriginal people,” an SA Health spokesperson said.

“Outreach and mobile clinics are helping facilitate Aboriginal people’s access to the vaccines across northern and southern Adelaide suburbs, while pop clinics are being investigated to support vaccination of Aboriginal people sleeping rough in central Adelaide.

“In addition to making the vaccine available through our clinics, we are also working in partnership with Nganampa Health Council, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Commonwealth Government to make the vaccine more accessible for those in regional and remote communities.

“Our work with NGOs, Aboriginal Health Clinics and community leaders to provide community education and information has helped promote awareness of the vaccination program within communities.”

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