Pasifika Vaccination Campaign Success

How a project pivoted from diabetes to COVID-19 vaccines in Western and South Western Sydney Pasifika communities.

Western Sydney University’s Pasifika Preventing Diabetes Programme (PPDP), led by Distinguished Professor David Simmons from the School of Medicine, was about to start data collection at the start of 2020 when the pandemic forced it to pause.

Within months the programme was pivoted from preventing diabetes via face-to-face activities, to supporting COVID-19 vaccination efforts, led by Freya MacMillan from the School of Health Sciences, also a PPDP chief investigator.

Kate McBride, another PPDP chief investigator, and School of Medicine Senior Lecturer in population health, was already involved in the Western Sydney and South Western Sydney Local Health Districts (LHDs) COVID-19 efforts. Through her conversations with contact tracers, it quickly became clear that official public health messaging wasn’t effectively reaching the area’s large Pasifika community despite best efforts.

So McBride connected the LHDs with the PPDP team, who had already established contacts with Pasifika community members and leaders.

“By June 2020, we were starting to get out and engage with the community to find out what the barriers were and how to overcome them,” MacMillan said.

They found documents issued by the government were very information-dense, and directly translated written materials didn’t quite hit the mark, according to lead PPDP community activator Ronda Thompson.

“Our languages are not straightforward languages for translation. We translate by meaning, and not so much word-for-word,” Thompson, who is Samoan, said.

The team provided guidance on simple, culturally specific written resources and also distributed leaflets via church leaders and as text message attachments. Then at the end of 2020, Thompson and her colleague Shopna Bag began interpreting public health orders on Samoan radio and social media videos, reaching more than 7,000 listeners and viewers.

Need to know

  • Western researchers have been working on a diabetes prevention project for Pasifika in Western Sydney.
  • During the pandemic, the project pivoted to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
  • Within 10 weeks of vaccination hubs being set up, 1,239 Pasifika people had received two doses of the vaccine.

A vaccination hub set up for the Pasifika community in Western Sydney.

“That visual of not just myself as a community member who speaks Samoan fluently, but having representation from our key health professionals had a huge effect. Community members felt valued,” Thompson said.

The biggest barrier, MacMillan said, was getting community members to come forward for vaccination. This was partly due to a lack of official, culturally effective information about vaccine safety at a time when anti-vaccination misinformation was rife, but also due to practical hurdles, such as navigating the long, text-heavy online vaccine registration system, Thompson said: “I read English, but I struggled with the registration system.”

Thompson, Bag and others spoke with church leaders about the importance of vaccination, set up vaccination hubs at churches and community centres, and registered community members.

So successful were their efforts that 300 recipients registered for a vaccine within five days. Within the first 10 weeks, 1,239 Pasifika people had received two doses.

During this time, Thompson and her colleague, Maleketa Felila from Western Sydney LHD, were information sources for the community to call, should they have questions or concerns about COVID or vaccines.

“We were able to create that sense of relief in our community, so next time they need a vaccine or booster they might think, I can make an appointment and it’s not necessarily something to fret about,” Thompson said.

That team of two has since expanded to a network of community activators and volunteers who continue vaccination support at the hubs.

And as for the diabetes programme? It’s back on, MacMillan said, and has incorporated elements of the vaccination hubs, such as arranging large, drop-in community centres, which has sped up data collection.

Meet the Academic | Distinguished Professor David Simmons

David is a Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the Western Sydney University Macarthur Clinical School, Head of the Campbelltown Hospital Endocrinology Department, Chair of the Campbelltown Hospital Clinical Council, Director of the Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism Translation Unit (DOMTRU) and Co-Director of the Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism Clinical Academic Group of Maridulu Budyari Gumal, the Sydney Partnership for Health, Education, Research and Enterprise (SPHERE). 

From 2007 to 2014, he was the lead diabetes consultant at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, overseeing major changes in the local model of care. Between 2003-2007 he was the inaugural Professor of Medicine at the University of Auckland Waikato Clinical School, New Zealand and 1998-2002 he was the Foundation Chair in Rural Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia. During this time, he established a full department, a clinical school (where he was acting Dean) and a range of undergraduate, postgraduate and research activities relating to rural and indigenous health. 

With over 280 refereed publications, David has won several national and international awards for his work in diabetes epidemiology, diabetes in pregnancy and diabetes service development. He is a past president of the Australasian Diabetes in Pregnancy Society (ADIPS) and was a member of the World Health Organisation technical working group on the criteria for hyperglycaemia in pregnancy. He was previously the chair of the Diabetes UK Health Professional Education Steering Group. David is a Visiting Professor at the University of Örebro, Sweden and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Freya MacMillan

Freya MacMillan has a background in physical activity for health (University of Strathclyde) and came to Western Sydney University initially as a post-doctoral fellow in physical activity for health across the lifespan in 2013, prior to being appointed a lecturer in interprofessional health sciences in 2015. Her research career has focused on understanding lifestyle behaviours and developing, implementing, evaluating and translating lifestyle behaviour interventions into practice. She engages with communities, healthcare workers and other professionals to ensure that the interventions that she develops are sustainable.  

Freya is also a Health and Wellbeing Research Theme Champion at Western Sydney University, deputy director of the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Translational Research Unit, an executive member and lead of the prevention working group in the Maridulu Budyari Gumal Sydney Partnership for Health, Enterprise Research & Education (SPHERE) Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Clinical Academic Group, a member of the Translational Health Research Institute and an International Union for Health Promotion and Education Registered Health Promotion Practitioner.

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Kate McBride

Kate's broad research expertise is in epidemiology, public health and the improvement of health at a population level through the prevention of and reduction of chronic disease. Kate's research focusses on the prevention and management of chronic disease including cancer, diabetes and obesity within high risk, marginalised populations which includes through the optimisation of healthcare access among these individuals. Kate coordinates and teaches on several population health and evidence-based medicine units in the MD degree as well the Masters of Epidemiology. Kate began working at Western Sydney University in 2013 and most recently, was appointed as an Associate Professor with the School of Medicine and the Translational Health Research Institute. 

Kate undertook a BSocSc in Anthropology (Manchester University) before working in the private sector for several years. Following a move to Australia, Kate began work in the health research sector at the University of Sydney (USyd) before completing her MPH(Hons) there in 2012. Kate was awarded her PhD from USyd in 2016 and throughout her PhD continued to work on several projects with the Sydney Medical School as well as teach epidemiology and public health within the School of Public Health. Kate's PhD focused on the management and screening of individuals at high risk of cancer due to a hereditary mutation.


Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.

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