Why culture matters to Māori health

Press Release – University of Waikato

Key health indicator statistics show Māori are disproportionately affected by heart and respiratory diseases and cancer; they are also at higher risk from blood-borne viruses (BBVs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
October 19, 2011

Why culture matters to Māori health

Improving Māori health could come down to a stronger sense of cultural identity.

Key health indicator statistics show Māori are disproportionately affected by heart and respiratory diseases and cancer; they are also at higher risk from blood-borne viruses (BBVs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Researchers from the Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato are investigating innovative ways to change those statistics by going back to the basics of policy development, service delivery, and cultural identity.

The Mauri Tu, Mauri Ora project, funded over five years by the Health Research Council, is part of an international collaborative health study of Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

The study has explored resistance and resilience – the ways in which Indigenous communities use their strengths to protect themselves from infections such as hepatitis C and HIV, and enhance their wellbeing.

Project researcher Mera Penehira is putting the finishing touches to the final report, and says the international collaboration has been an exciting opportunity. “It’s more meaningful to compare Māori with other Indigenous peoples, and it shows that in some areas, such as the prevalence of blood-borne viruses, we’re doing relatively well.”

Key change points, says Ms Penehira, are at the policy level, service provider level, and community level.

“We discovered a mismatch between policy and service provision,” she says. “Service providers are sometimes not adequately resourced, or they are ill-informed about policy, or they don’t get the monitoring required to ensure they actually implement culturally appropriate services.”

But the research also revealed the importance of a strong sense of identity.

“People who make up the statistics tell us there’s a link between positive cultural identity and well-being,” says Ms Penehira. “It’s not just a health issue, they’re saying being Māori is a key factor in providing protection against HIV, STIs and blood-borne viruses.”

This holistic view of Māori health and wellbeing also helps encourage discussion of risk factors in sexual and reproductive health.

“A critical part of change is to remove the silencing around this topic,” says Ms Penehira. “If we can get people talking about what is at the core of good sexual and reproductive health, things like, whakapapa (genealogy), tamariki (children) and oranga (relationships, health and wellbeing), then we can better protect ourselves against risk.”

The final Mauri Tu, Mauri Ora report will be available from the Health Research Council in early 2012.

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