Pacific Island women, who began to arrive in New Zealand in substantial numbers in the 1950s, had a health profile similar to that of Māori.
Major causes of death
Heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease were the most common causes of death among Pacific Island women. They were affected at greater rates than that for all New Zealand women (but at lower rates than Pacific Island men).
Strokes, for example, killed nearly twice as many Pacific Island women over the age of 45 as all New Zealand women (812 per 100,000 compared with 486) in 1996–2000. Pacific Island women suffer particularly high rates of diabetes – three times the rate of the general population. Pacific Island women were more likely than all New Zealand women to die from breast cancer (85 compared with 63 per 100,000), and cervical cancer (14 compared with 8 per 100,000).
Within the Pacific Island population 28% of women smoked, compared with 35% of men, and also had a lower drinking rate. Although Pacific Island women drank more than women generally, they were less likely to drink in a hazardous way. Increasing numbers of Pacific Island women were obese, with a rate of 48% in 2002–3.
The link between poor health and low socio-economic status was clear among Pacific Island New Zealanders, more than 50% of whom live in deprived areas. Poor and overcrowded housing contributed to high rates of infectious disease (such as tuberculosis) and relatively high infant mortality. These problems continued to affect the Pacific Island community in the 2000s.
Pacific Island women had a higher rate of avoidable death (where effective prevention or treatment is available) than that of all New Zealand women: 471 per 100,000 compared with 318 per 100,000 between 1996 and 2000. (Though it is not as high as the rate for Pacific Island men, at 771 per 100,000.)
Extended family played an important role in the Pacific Islands, providing advice, and emotional and practical support. Coming to New Zealand often meant losing that network. Pacific women sometimes found themselves isolated at critical moments – including during pregnancy, birth and while children were young. Despite this stress, rates of post-natal depression (PND) varied greatly. Samoan women were particularly resistant to PND, with one study finding 7.6% suffered from it, while the rate among Tongan women was 30.9% (the average for Pākehā women was 16%).
Church-based health care
The Samoan Catholic Women’s Group and the Presbyterian Women’s Group called the first cervical education meeting for Christchurch’s Pacific Island community. Gwenivere Newport, who arrived in New Zealand from Samoa in the 1950s, remembers that ‘it was a subject that wasn’t discussed publicly in those days … so for it to be piloted by these women was great’.1
Use of medical services
Use of medical services among the Pacific Island community has not been high. Pacific Island women’s first contact with free midwifery services, for example, tended to be late in pregnancy, with a resulting increase in complications during birth. Language difficulties, a lack of understanding of the services available and a scarcity of Pacific Island medical staff all contributed to the low use of services.
Responding to these difficulties, Pacific Island health professionals began setting up programmes and centres from the 1980s. The centres had medical staff fluent in Pacific Island languages. Some had family-sized consultation rooms, did home visits, and undertook their own staff training to increase the pool of Pacific Island medical workers.