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Pacific Island health

by Colin Tukuitonga

Pacific people are important contributors to New Zealand society, and to the arts, sport and music industries – yet in the 2000s their health status was poor. Pacific people had high rates of diabetes and infant mortality, and many lived in overcrowded conditions where infections spread easily. A number of targeted health initiatives aimed to combat these problems.

Births, deaths and health attitudes

People of Pacific Island ethnicity are an important and growing part of New Zealand society and culture. In 2006 they comprised 6.9% of the country’s population and were major contributors to New Zealand’s success in sports, music and arts – and increasingly in business and academia. Despite this, Pacific people have some of the worst health statistics of all New Zealanders.

These ethnic disparities in health are attributable to adverse socio-economic circumstances such as high unemployment, low educational achievement, low income and overcrowding. Pacific people also have a high prevalence of risk factors such as smoking, unhealthy diets and obesity. Furthermore, they have problems in getting access to quality health-care services.


The Pacific population has a high birth rate, putting Pacific people among the fastest-growing population groups in New Zealand. In 2006 the Pacific fertility rate was 2.95 births per woman, compared to the national rate of 2.05. The median age of childbearing for Pacific women was 27.7 years, while the national median was 30.3 years.

The pregnancy rate for Pacific teenagers was 75% higher than the national average in 2002, suggesting lower use of contraception. Because children born to teenage mothers are at risk of low birth weight, perinatal mortality and socio-economic disadvantage, health advocates recommended that family-planning programmes targeted Pacific communities. Yet they also recognised that it was more acceptable in some cultures to have children young.

Encouraging breastfeeding

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well-known. But in 2009 Porirua breastfeeding advocate Ligi Igasia found many Pacific mothers were too embarrassed to attend public clinics teaching breastfeeding techniques. So she began visiting them in their homes, and soon had a number of mothers breastfeeding their babies for more than six months.


In 2006 38% of the Pacific population were aged under 15, compared with 22% of New Zealand’s total population. This reflected the community’s higher fertility rate. Only 4% of the Pacific population were aged 65 and over, compared with 12% of the national population. This imbalance was a product of immigration – people who migrate to New Zealand tend to be younger – combined with the higher death rate of Pacific people.

Death rates

Data from 2005–7 showed that Pacific people had a considerably higher death rate (8.8 deaths per 1,000 people) than the total national population (5.8 per 1,000). In 2004 a government report estimated that on average Pacific males could expect to live for 71.5 years and Pacific females for 76.7 years. This was lower than the national average of 76.3 years for males and 81.1 for females.

Biggest killers

Between 1996 and 2000 the leading cause of death among Pacific people aged 14 and under was motor-vehicle crashes. For those over 65 the leading cause of death was ischaemic heart disease – the same as for New Zealand as a whole.

Between 1996 and 2000 the avoidable death rate for Pacific people was approximately 50% greater than for the total New Zealand population. Avoidable deaths are those of people under 75 years of age where effective prevention, treatment options and health-care technologies are available.

Attitudes to health

All Pacific cultures have a holistic view of health with a strong spiritual dimension. This asserts that good health is the result of a balanced relationship between humans and their environment. Disease, injury and even death can occur if this balance is put out of kilter, sometimes as a result of wrongdoing by the victim or a family member. These beliefs may contribute to the tendency for some Pacific people to avoid doctors’ visits and health interventions.

Social wellbeing and health status

While Pacific people have experienced real gains in social wellbeing since the mid-1990s – such as in educational achievement and paid work – their overall outcomes are poor compared with other New Zealanders. The New Zealand Health Surveys have also shown that the majority of Pacific people were less likely to report excellent or very good health, compared with the total population.

Children and young people


While some improvements have been made, Pacific children have poor health compared to other children. In the early 2000s the infant mortality rate was 40% higher among the Pacific population than the national average. This rate is generally regarded as a good indicator of the socio-economic conditions in which children live.

Pacific children are more likely than others to be admitted to hospital for respiratory conditions, infectious and parasitic diseases, burns and unintentional injuries. In 1998–2000 their hospitalisation rate for asthma was 50% higher than the New Zealand average. In 2003–5 notification rates for rheumatic fever for children aged 5–14 were 67 per 100,000 for Pacific children, 34 per 100,000 for Māori children and three per 100,000 for Europeans and others. These childhood problems are consequences of poverty, substandard housing and inadequate health care. Poverty rates were significantly higher among Pacific children compared with other New Zealand children in 2006–7.

Promoting safer sex


Family Life Education Pasifika (FLEP) was set up in 1997 to tackle the high rate of pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections among Pacific youth in South Auckland. The group visited churches, community groups, and schools, using music, drama, dance and art to educate adolescents about sexual health and wellbeing. In 2009 FLEP began its ‘Random Acts, Island Styles’ project, where it gave public music and drama performances, some of which were filmed and posted on YouTube.


Young people

Young Pacific people generally have death, disease and injury patterns similar to those of other young New Zealanders. A 2007 survey of secondary school students found that 90% of Pacific boys and 82% of Pacific girls reported their health was excellent, very good or good, compared to 95% of European boys and 93% of European girls. There was little difference in the proportion of Pacific and European students with depressive symptoms (11% and 9%), but Pacific students were more likely to have attempted suicide. Of sexually active Pacific students, 66% reported using condoms or other contraception, compared to 87% of European students – which helps to explain the high Pacific teenage pregnancy rate.

Between 2001 and 2007 the proportion of students who reported being OK or very happy or satisfied with their lives rose from 83% to 92%.


Diseases and disabilities


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, the problem, he said, was exacerbated by Western lifestyles and diets.


In 2004 the prevalence of diabetes in Pacific people was two to three times the national average, 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 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 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 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 those 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

There is no accurate information on disabilities among Pacific people in New Zealand. 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, and bipolar disorders – in the previous 12 months compared to 20.7% for 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.

Causes of poor health

Health is affected by the interaction between personal and environmental factors. Environmental influences include physical, socio-economic, cultural and political factors as well as the availability of health services. It is generally accepted that the socio-economic factors – especially education and income – are the most important determinant of population health status. Poor people with limited education generally have poor health.


Pacific people generally have lower socio-economic status than other New Zealanders – 42% live in decile 10 (most deprived) areas instead of the expected 10% given their proportion within the general population. While there has been some improvement since 1990, Pacific people remain worse off than other New Zealanders. Poor educational outcomes, high unemployment and low income levels have a major impact on Pacific people’s health and wellbeing.

Education and employment

Generally, more young Pacific people than others leave school without formal qualifications, but the proportion of Pacific people gaining the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 improved significantly between 2003 and 2007. Unemployment among Pacific people is about double the national rate – 12.3% in September 2009, compared with 6.5%. Unemployment is a major cause of poverty, and of related health consequences for both adults and children.


In 2006 the median income for Pacific wage and salary earners was $20,500, compared with $24,400 for other New Zealanders. The income gap widened between 1998 and 2008. People on low incomes sometimes delay doctor’s visits until they are very sick.

Snug as a bug

Since the early 2000s social-housing provider Housing New Zealand has been insulating its older houses to improve tenants’ comfort and health. In early 2008 New Plymouth tenant Sally Falaniko’s house was insulated. In the 2007 winter her two sons and daughter had spent time in hospital with pneumonia, but the following winter her four kids were healthy and happy. The previous year Falaniko had constantly run her gas heater. Now she no longer needed to, saving a considerable amount on her gas bill.


Overcrowding and poor-quality housing is a major social and public health problem for Pacific families. In 2006 the average number of people in a Pacific household was 4.4, compared with 2.7 for all New Zealand households. More than 60% of all Pacific households included more than three people, compared with 35% of all households. Overcrowding encourages the spread of disease, including rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, meningococcal disease and skin infection.

Pacific people are heavily reliant on rental housing, and make up a quarter of Housing New Zealand’s clients. Since the early 2000s Housing New Zealand’s Healthy Housing programme – where state houses are insulated and extended to accommodate larger Pacific families – has significantly reduced the incidence of infectious diseases.

Social support

Population groups who live in cohesive and mutually supportive societies generally have better health. Some traditional support structures within New Zealand Pacific communities have been eroded, and many individuals and families have limited social support. Churches play an important role in supporting some Pacific families – but young New Zealand-born people may not be connected to their family, church and community.

Risk factors and health service delivery

Risk factors


Pacific people are disproportionately affected by lifestyle-related diseases caused by smoking, poor diet and physical inactivity. Several studies have shown that more than 65% of Pacific people are obese. Obesity is one of the major causes of poor health, especially diabetes, for adult Pacific people. It is also a growing problem among Pacific children and young people. Results from the 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey showed that 31% of New Zealand children aged 5–14 were overweight or obese. The situation was worse for Māori and Pacific children – 41% and 62% respectively were overweight or obese. A major cause of obesity is the consumption of unhealthy food – such as pies and pastries – and lack of regular physical activity.

Extremely obese kids

A 2007 Otago University study found almost 11% of New Zealand Pacific Island children were extremely obese, compared to just 0.8% of European and other non-Māori children. Researcher Dr Alisa Goulding said, ‘Most parents probably didn’t realise their children are so heavy and so fat.’ 1 However, their size posed health threats like Type 2 diabetes. Goulding said that more research was needed to discover the reasons for the ethnic differences and find ways to curb severe obesity in children.


The drinking patterns of Pacific people are also more harmful, with higher reported rates of violence associated with drinking than for the general population. A 2003 study found that 57% of Pacific people drank alcohol, compared to 85% of the total population. However, Pacific people had a greater average annual consumption of alcohol (21 litres) than the New Zealand average (11 litres). Moreover, 33% of Pacific drinkers consumed enough to feel drunk at least weekly – as against 9% of drinkers nationally.


While tobacco use in New Zealand has declined, the prevalence of smoking remains higher among Pacific people, especially men. In 2006, 27.9% of Pacific people smoked, compared with 18.9% of all New Zealanders.

Health service delivery

Hospital admissions

Hospital admissions for preventable conditions such as asthma and diabetes are two to three times higher among Pacific people than other New Zealanders. Pacific people with asthma are seen more often in hospital emergency departments and are less likely to receive preventive therapy. Pacific people with diabetes develop more complications as a result of their disease. Children of Pacific origin are six times more likely to be admitted to hospital with pneumonia than other New Zealand children. These problems probably stem from delays in seeking care, compounded by traditional beliefs about health and illness, poor access to primary care providers and lack of confidence in hospital services.

The Pacific touch

Teuila Percival, an Auckland paediatrician of Samoan descent, commented that ‘[a] Samoan nurse once explained to me about “the Pacific touch.” What is the Pacific touch? It is taking the time to stop and pray with a family. It is taking the time to teach a young mother to cook. It is being committed and dedicated and passionate about our people. The Pacific touch is that quality that sets a special few of our nurses and health workers apart.’2

Pacific primary health care providers

Pacific people were less likely to go to doctors’ surgeries and medical centres, leading to more of them being admitted to hospital than the general population. From the late 20th century this was beginning to change, as Pacific-owned primary health care services were set up. The first was West Auckland’s Pasifika Healthcare, in 1989.

In 2000 there were 30 Pacific-owned health-provider organisations throughout New Zealand. They were a response to ongoing problems with access to primary health care, which was market-driven, medically focused, and sometimes unresponsive to the needs and expectations of Pacific people. There was also no provision for public input into primary health-care service delivery, and a severe shortage of doctors who could speak a Pacific language. Pacific-owned health services have improved choices for Pacific people, but the majority of the Pacific population continue to be served by mainstream providers.

In 2010 Pacific people in New Zealand continued to be low users of health-care services despite having high health needs. Targeted health initiatives for Pacific people were developing, but more substantial changes were needed to make health services more accessible.

  1. ‘1-in-10 Pacific Island kids in NZ “extremely obese”.’ New Zealand Press Association, 13 November 2007, (last accessed 12 May 2010). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘Pacific health in New Zealand: our stories.’ Ministry of Health, (last accessed 13 May 2010). Back

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How to cite this page: Colin Tukuitonga, 'Pacific Island health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 June 2017)

Story by Colin Tukuitonga, published 5 May 2011