Dr Catherine Orr on raising the child vax rate

Posted on 16th March 2022

This opinion piece appeared in the Herald Sun on 16 March 2022.

Dr Catherine Orr is a GP specialising in COVID-19 management, and the clinical lead of COVID vaccine and testing at cohealth, a Victorian community health service. 

Almost two years ago to the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic due to a novel coronavirus, named SarsCov2, which resulted in a disease we call COVID-19.  If we had known then that this virus was going to kill more people than the entire population of Norway, would we have responded differently? 

I look back at where I was this time two years ago.  I had optimistically moved to Melbourne from rural NSW to be close to family after the death of my father.  My two daughters had come with me and started at new high schools. My husband was back at our rural property preparing to sell it.  I had two adult sons who had just moved overseas, spreading their wings and exploring the world as young people should. 

Then the global pandemic arrived, and our world was turned around.  I frantically got my boys home from overseas.  The six of us celebrated my eldest son’s 21st in a little two-bedroom apartment in which the boys were isolating.  The world had become a very different place. 

As a mum of four kids and a doctor, I wondered what the future would hold for our children.  Would this virus die out like others had before it and life return to normal?  Was it here to stay and cause huge rates of illness and death?  What could the scientific world bring to treat and prevent this virus?  Would we ever get a vaccine for a coronavirus that had proved so difficult in the past? 

Sitting here two years later, what do we know now? The virus turned out to be very serious and more than six million people have died. 

No country has been untouched by COVID-19 and no country has been able to completely halt its advance.  The scientists of the world have done us proud and we have a large number of effective vaccines and some effective treatments. We have vaccines for children as young as five years.  

As a doctor, I was able to arrange my children’s vaccinations with ease.  I speak English, am educated, have access to the internet and can afford to take time off to take my children for vaccination appointments.   

I have good access to reliable information about the vaccines, booking a vaccine was easy and I trust the science behind the vaccines.   

So, with all that we know, and all that we have been through, why are we seeing relatively slow uptake in vaccination in children under 12 years especially in some pockets of Victoria? 

At cohealth we believe the issues are complex. Vaccine hesitancy is not anti-vaccine.  

Parents want the best for their children but barriers such as language, access, technology, literacy and finances coupled with confusing messages, distrust of government and conflicting advice mean that many people are choosing to wait and not vaccinate their children. 

How can these barriers be overcome?  cohealth’s model of care is built around embedding ourselves in the community, identifying the people who don’t have equal access to care and taking the time to build trust with them.   

We have employed over 100 bicultural workers and health guides who act as bridges to their communities. They bring reliable health information to their own communities in their own languages using posters, videos, social media and conversations. They join with nurses to visit schools, community centres, high rise housing and religious centres to deliver health information, isolation packs and rapid antigen tests. In the last two months alone cohealth has knocked on over 5000 public housing doors and provided over 15,000 RATs to people who might not access them otherwise. 

cohealth set up pop-up vaccine clinics at schools and at high rise public housing to take the vaccine into the community, rather than wait for people to come to us. Since January, 1 in 5 people vaccinated at the high rise pop-ups were kids. Another marker of success is the small number of adults who are coming to us for their first doses after months of hesitancy. 

During the pandemic, as part of cohealth’s COVID-Positive Pathways program, I looked after hundreds of people with COVID-19 in Melbourne’s west, largely people from a migrant background. I heard first-hand from them the barriers to care that they faced.   

Recent ABS stats show that the migrant community has suffered a disproportionately high number of COVID deaths.  Understanding their specific needs and taking the time to build the trust of these communities is key to addressing the disadvantage, and this is something community health agencies such as cohealth does best.  

We are not yet out of the woods with COVID. Although it’s easy to be desensitised to the numbers, around 10 Victorians are currently losing their life to COVID every day, and there is still work to be done to get kids vaccination rates up to where we need them.  

As we navigate our way through this phase of the pandemic and prepare ourselves for emerging viruses in years to come, we should look to the expertise of the community health sector, which holds a wealth of knowledge and relationships with the communities and people we need to reach.  

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