Story: Pacific Island health

Page 3. Diseases and disabilities

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Heart disease

Heart diseases were the leading cause of death among Pacific people (as in the general population). Reported rates of heart disease in the Pacific population were lower but death rates were higher compared to other New Zealanders. Deaths from heart disease have declined in New Zealand since the 1980s, but the rate of decline among Pacific people has been much lower. High blood pressure is more common among Pacific people than other New Zealanders, but they are less likely to seek treatment for this condition.

Diabetes epidemic

In 2006 a world expert on diabetes, Professor Martin Slink, warned that diabetes could wipe out Māori and Pacific Islanders by the end of the century. Māori males were 6.5 times more likely and Māori females 10 times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Polynesians, while the mortality rate for Pacific people was five times the non-Polynesian rate. While Polynesian people had genes that made diabetes more damaging, Slink said that the problem was exacerbated by Western lifestyles and diets.


In 2014/15 the prevalence of diabetes in Pacific people was almost three times the national figure, and complications were common. These included heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and lower-limb amputation. High obesity rates among Pacific people were one explanation for their propensity to develop Type 2 diabetes, which is usually linked to diet and increases with age. Experts also suggested that indigenous people were more susceptible to diabetes as they were not physiologically adapted to Western food and lifestyles.


In general, incidence of common cancers is similar to that of the total New Zealand population, but Pacific people tend to seek medical treatment later, when the disease is at an advanced stage. This may explain why the breast-cancer death rate among Pacific women aged 25–44 is higher than that for the general population. Pacific women are more likely to contract and die from cervical cancer, and are less likely to use screening services.

Ethnicity and disease

Higher Pacific disease and death rates are more likely to reflect poor access to health information and health care than inherent predisposition to disease. These disease and death rates are also the outcome of a higher prevalence of risk factors for some diseases. Unintentional injuries – such as falls and motor-vehicle crashes – are the leading causes of admission to hospital, followed by asthma, stroke and coronary heart disease. In 2002, despite similar rates of people admitted to hospital with heart disease, Europeans were three times more likely than Pacific people to have coronary bypass surgery, and seven times more likely to have angioplasty (a procedure to open blocked or narrowed heart arteries). This suggests that Pacific people did not always receive the best treatment for these conditions.

In areas where health providers had targeted programmes – such as the diabetes programme Get Checked – Pacific participants were as likely to have received proper care as other ethnic groups.

Disabilities and mental health

In 2013, adjusting for age, 26% of Pacific people were physically disabled, compared to 32% of Māori, 24% of Europeans and 17% of Asians.

The 2006 New Zealand Mental Health Survey showed that Pacific people had higher rates of mental illness than other New Zealanders. It found that 24.4% of Pacific people had experienced a mental disorder – such as anxiety, eating or bipolar disorder – in the previous 12 months compared to 20.7% of the national population. More worryingly, three out of four Pacific people with severe mental illness did not have access to adequate mental-health care services.

How to cite this page:

Colin Tukuitonga, 'Pacific Island health - Diseases and disabilities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Colin Tukuitonga, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 9 Jan 2019