Aboriginal health organisations are calling on the federal government to release more detailed data on vaccination rates in Aboriginal communities, with concerns “big gaps” in coverage have emerged that need to be urgently addressed.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (Naccho) said detailed data was essential to the successful rollout to vulnerable remote and suburban communities.
Naccho’s senior medical adviser, GP and epidemiologist Dr Jason Agostino, said it was “hard to understand” why detailed data about Indigenous vaccination rates was not publicly available, as it is Canada, the USA, or New Zealand which publishes weekly data on Maori vaccination rates.
“Priority reform number four of the closing the gap agreement is about data for health services planning, and at the moment I think I’m the only person in the Aboriginal community controlled health sector that has access to really detailed data,” Agostino said.
“Unless we’re paying attention to those small levels of geography and those individual communities, we might find islands of poor vaccination coverage that leave those communities vulnerable.”
He said coverage was improving with more Pfizer doses reaching Aboriginal health services.
Guardian Australia asked the federal Department of Health for Indigenous vaccination statistics with breakdowns by age groups and state and territories after being unable to find it published on any government site. In reply it provided broad rates but no detail by age or location.
Nationally, around 141,908 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 and over have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, according to the Department of Health, or about 24% of the eligible population. More than 60,000 Indigenous people are fully vaccinated, or just over 10% of the eligible population. This compares with 41.4% of the general population aged 16 and over who have received at least one dose, and 19.7% of the general population who are fully vaccinated.
This is despite Indigenous people aged 55 and over being classified as a 1B priority group since late March 2021, and Indigenous people aged 16 and over since June 2021.
In the over-60 population, Aboriginal communities have equal coverage to that of the non-Indigenous population. But in some locations with high Aboriginal populations, the vaccination rate is very low.
In northern Western Australia, an area with a very high Indigenous population, the vaccination rate is 8.6% – the lowest in the country. In far western NSW, which has a very high Indigenous population but which has had its Pfizer doses redirected to south-west Sydney, the overall vaccination rate is 13.4%.
Agostino said 90% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is under 60 and the challenge has been providing them with access to the recommended Pfizer doses.
“Up until the last month or so we’ve had to access urban, centrally-located Pfizer hubs, instead of the normal places where people access health care, and I don’t think that model has worked well for Aboriginal people, and probably hasn’t worked well for a number of other populations as well,” he said.
“All the Aboriginal medical services within greater Sydney have had access to Pfizer for the past few weeks and we’re seeing great uptake. So the story that the numbers say to me is that when we can give doses in Aboriginal health services and other primary health settings, we see good coverage rates. When we were just relying on these centrally-based places, things weren’t working well.”
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said in June he was concerned about “significant” vaccine hesitancy in communities.
Agostino said the data pointed to a lack of vaccine availability as one of the key barriers, which Naccho members were working hard to overcome.
“Until recently we’ve had a real problem with availability of doses and not being at places where people access care. That’s not to say there isn’t hesitancy, but what we hear from all our services is now they are getting Pfizer for that under-60 population, there has been really great uptake.
“I think the key issue at the moment is just making sure we get doses into communities.”
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Agostino said detailed data is essential because Covid vaccination will need to be an ongoing part of Aboriginal primary health care.
“It [Covid] is not going away. We’re already planning, there’ve already been discussions and planning booster doses out to 2022. So this is now part of our normal service delivery and we need to ensure that we’re having high coverage throughout all Australia.
“We’ve just got a long way to catch up. I’m confident that as long as we keep getting a high number of doses into our services and keep working with state governments around issues with workforce that we can really improve those vaccination rates quickly.”