Pasifika doctor says increase of lifestyle diseases in Samoa due to 'lack of health literacy'

A Samoan doctor says there is an alarming increase in kidney failure, diabetes and high blood pressure in Samoa because of a lack of health literacy.

30th November, 2020

Pasifika doctor says increase of lifestyle diseases in Samoa due to 'lack of health literacy'
Photo/RNZ

A Samoan doctor says there is an alarming increase in kidney failure, diabetes and high blood pressure in Samoa because of a lack of health literacy.

Leituala Dr Ben Matalavea, the Clinical Director at the National Kidney Foundation of Samoa, says patients often seek help late because they stick with traditional methods for their treatment.

“They would rather see a traditional healer or somebody in the village, who may be able to help with all sorts of ailments and diseases and that’s not a fault of ours, that’s our belief for hundreds of years. It’s to do with our traditions and our cultures.

“We did not have diabetes and high blood pressure back in the day, so trying to address these issues with the traditional methods is just not working.”

Leituala says it’s important to engage with modern medicine and professional help so that their health literacy can be increased.

“How understanding our people are in modern medical terms and understanding disease processes. We are nowhere near that level that we can get the benefit of the modern medicine that is on offer. 

“Although I do believe in traditional healing and traditional healers in most health issues, when it comes to lifestyle diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, we have to seek help from professionals who have been trained to deal with these things.”

The National Kidney Foundation of Samoa (NKFS) is conducting research that it hopes could stem the tide of the chronic kidney disease, the fourth largest cause of death in Samoa.

Dr Malama Tafuna’i is based in Dunedin to study the data collected about chronic kidney disease since the inception of NKFS.

She says some of the takeaways from her research include the survival rate of patients on haemodialysis treatment for kidneys, where a third of Samoans commencing the treatment die within the first year.

“Thirty three per cent of our Samoans who go on dialysis in Samoa survive 12 months compared to Pacific peoples here that start dialysis, it’s only 10 per cent.

“We want to try and understand why aren't our people surviving longer and so we need to look closely at when we’re starting dialysis, what we’re doing in those initial stages, how we’re engaging with our people to have them as active participants in this process.”

Tafuna’i says the main causes of chronic kidney disease are similar to diabetes and high blood pressure.

“These tie back to our diets and our lifestyle - really, really basic. We want to understand the disconnect between the way we eat and live and the development of these diseases.”

The Otago-based GP wants to see Pacific people be more literate in the Western health system, rather than their own system.

“Pacific peoples are incredibly health literate, but we’re health literate to our values and beliefs and our system is a very different system to the Western system, but we now need to become literate in this Western system.”