27 Jun 2017

Typhoid outbreak still hurting Auckland church

8:17 am on 27 June 2017

An Auckland church tainted by a typhoid outbreak earlier this year is now struggling to find a place of worship.

Auckland Hospital

Auckland Hospital Photo: RNZ/ Bradley Ambrose

It comes as a new report (PDF, 496KB) for the Ministry of Health has found shortcomings in the way the Auckland Regional Public Health Service handled the outbreak.

Over two months, 24 members of the same church group were infected. One of them died with the disease, but was also suffering other health issues.

The report found public health authorities were first alerted to the outbreak on 21 March.

It said while the outbreak was quickly contained and the clinical aspects were very well managed, communication was too slow.

A spokesperson for the family of the woman that died, Jerome Mika, has criticised public health officials for naming the church - a Samoan Assembly of God church that met in Mt Roskill.

"They used Mount Roskill AOG [Assembly of God], there are about three or four different churches that are called Mount Roskill AOG. That wasn't even their name, so the way it was communicated, it was wrong information but it also implicated other churches that weren't part of the issue at hand," he said.

Since the church had been identified, it had struggled to find a permanent home, he said.

"They even had one sports club they were going to have the church there on the Sunday, and they texted Saturday night to tell them they couldn't use it because they found out through a player that that was the church involved with typhoid," he said.

The report's author, Lester Levy, said while the outbreak was contained it was also important to give the public confidence that the process was being well managed.

"The public were left with serious concerns about a number of issues which could affect the confidence and therefore the communication engagement is critical," Dr Levy said.

He said while people were trying to be highly respectful, a much quicker and broader response was required.

"They need to be able to communicate better more quickly, they need to be able to escalate more quickly, they need to be able to engage with communities more quickly."

"When a member of the Pasifika community dies unexpectedly, they should be working closely with the community in terms of communicating any element in terms of what needs to be communicated," Dr Levy said.

Mr Mika acknowledged the need to be culturally respectful, but said it was also a resourcing issue.

"I think there was an element of their limited capability on the ground in terms of being able to respond to that," he said.

The report noted Auckland Regional Public Health Service's only Pacific advisor was overloaded with their work liaising with the Pasifika community, which involved more than 30 languages.

It recommended merging the service's communication team with the Auckland District Health Board communications team, which has better links to the Pasifika community.

But Labour's MP for Mangere, Aupito William Sio, said the report didn't deal with the critical issue of a lack of money.

"That recommendation is basically based on the shortfall of funding that they were able to use, because the report also says it requires more dedicated resourcing to a sector that is multilingual, [that means] more people on the ground."

Mr Sio said he was worried the report pushed the blame onto an organisation that was severely under-resourced and struggling to meet its obligations to protect the community from certain diseases and outbreaks.

At the time of the outbreak, the service was already dealing with three other outbreaks - mumps, measles and malaria.

The report recommended appropriate action be taken in terms of certain staff members and highlighted weaknesses in terms of the service's culture, management capability and structure.

The report hasn't identified the cause of the outbreak, which Dr Levy said might never be known.

Report's recommendations being implemented

Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) declined to be interviewed but in statement it said it had either implemented or would be implementing the report's recommendations.

This included providing increased support for community advisors and working proactively with community groups.

It said it had already apologised to the church for getting the name wrong, but defended its decision to name the church and said it was necessary, "to support the management of the outbreak, protect public safety and respond to concerns raised by the wider Pacific community".

It said it had provided some support to the church to help them find a new venue and wanted to make clear that an outbreak of typhoid could occur anytime or within any organisation or group of people.

Finally, it said lack of resources was not a factor in dealing with this outbreak.

"ARPHS is facing the same challenges as the wider health sector; increased demand due to population and demographic changes. Resourcing was not identified as a factor in dealing with this outbreak." it said.

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