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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



High Disease Incidence

Statistics from public hospitals show that there is a higher disease incidence among Maori than non-Maoris in almost all diseases treated, a very important finding being that the Maori is in fact more susceptible to the degenerative changes which occur in the human body during late middle life and old age. Because there are few old Maoris, it had been wrongly though that they did not suffer from these degenerative diseases. The higher mortality rate from cancer among the Maoris does not necessarily signify a higher racial incidence. Cancer is a disease which, if diagnosed early enough, may be curable. And early diagnosis is dependent on the recognition by the patient of the first suspicious signs and symptoms.

Some of the heart, kidney, and lung conditions which show a comparatively high death rate in the Maori from middle age upwards may well be the aftermath of infectious diseases incurred during childhood – for example, scarlet fever and whooping cough can result in kidney and respiratory damage. They may also produce in the Maori chronic types of disease which lower his chances of survival.

In the early colonisation of New Zealand the Maoris were ravaged by diseases which killed a high proportion of the people. It is doubtful, however, after over 100 years of association with the European, whether any marked degree of susceptibility to these contagious conditions can remain. It is felt that their poorer standard of health is caused not so much by a greater susceptibility, but rather by the substandard conditions of their housing, where sanitation, water supply, and sewage tend to be more primitive than the average European household. There is also a lower standard of nutrition, personal hygiene, and a failure to provide adequate clothing for children.

Maori and European units in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force served under similar conditions and yet the health record of both races is similar. In fact, in the case of infective hepatitis the Maori seemed less susceptible than the European.

In a paper on tuberculosis among Maori troops in the Second World War, Dr McDonald Wilson stated that “… the fact that a group of Maoris with this background in civil life who were like the Europeans, incompletely screened prior to going overseas, lived in a strange climate, and underwent all the herding together and privations of campaigns, developed over the years a total of only 48 cases of pulmonary tuberculosis, definitely suggests the Maori is not susceptible to tuberculosis – probably no more so than the average European if he lived under similar conditions to the Maori. With this has to be borne in mind the fact that the incidence of tuberculosis among the Europeans in New Zealand is one of the lowest in the world”.

It is important when dealing with health statistics to appreciate the fact that, in the future, the census and the registration figures for births and deaths will always be unreliable. For all statistical purposes a Maori is defined as a person with 50 per cent or more of Maori blood. The 1961 census shows 62·2 per cent full-blooded Maoris, which is higher than the figure 62·1 in 1945, and very much at variance with the 1936 census figures of 25 per cent for South Island Maoris. Field workers believe that intermarriage has reduced the number of full-blooded Maoris to about 20 per cent, or 30,000, with possibly 120,000 Maoris having a strain of European. Should any of the Maoris in this latter group marry Europeans, their children should be classified as Europeans; but this is not the rule. For census purposes the Maoris and part-Maoris tend to classify themselves into the group in which their interests and cultural ties are strongest; hence the increase of full-blooded Maoris which, though not a true figure, is evidence of their strong racial pride. New Zealand is probably the only country in the world where people with one-quarter, or even an eighth part, of their heriditary blood are proud to belong to a racial minority and to identify themselves with it.

by Rina Winifred Moore, M.B., CH.B., Medical Practitioner, Nelson.

  • Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori, Firth, R. (1929)
  • Report on Department of Maori Affairs, with Statistical Supplement, Hunn, J. K. (1960)
  • Maori-European Standards of Health, Medical Statistics Branch, Department of Health, (1960).