A group of 12 women – Community Health Educators – are working to educate Shepparton’s multicultural communities about COVID-19. They have seen more community members taking up the COVID-19 vaccine since their education sessions commenced.
Now they’re working to separate fact from fiction. The session is hosted by Wise Well Women, a grassroots initiative aimed at increasing health literacy in Shepparton’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Sujeevika Kumuduni, a community health educator with the group and member of Shepparton’s large Sri Lankan community, is helping run today’s session.
“I brought all my friends,” she says.
“I had a health degree in Sri Lanka, so I think I can work with that for the community.”
Breaking down vaccine barriers
Wise Well Women is run by 12 women who represent Shepparton’s Afghan, Syrian, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Congolese, Sri Lankan and Filipino communities.
Health literacy is already low in mainstream communities, but it is even lower for people from non-English speaking and refugee backgrounds.
But Wise Well Women hopes to change this.
Formed earlier this year, the group covers everything from mental and women’s health to parenting and family violence.
Passionate about change
Zahraa Taher is a Wise Well Women community educator working with Shepparton’s Afghan and Syrian communities.
She just had a baby, but her passion saw her back on deck two weeks after giving birth.
Her eyes light up as she describes the impact the sessions are already having in her circles.
“At every gathering and meeting, vaccination comes up,” she said.
“Everywhere I go, I hear them saying, ‘Did you have your vaccination?'”
Before the sessions, it was a vastly different picture.
Many women still resorted to gathering their information from friends, social media, and news sources back in their homeland.
Ms Taher feared this left them open to misinformation.
“Most women were taking guard, saying, ‘We don’t want to have the vaccine,'” she said.
“But after we have a session, and everything is explained, and their questions are answered … they become more comfortable.
“Now, I’m hearing from them that they are booking, and some of them ask me to book for them.”
Need for solid data
It is now mandatory for Victorian vaccination hubs to record the ethnicity information of patients.
But it was not at the start of the program, so any data health services now have is incomplete.
And hospitals do not have permission to share this data.
Ethnic Council of Shepparton manager Chris Hazelman said there could be benefits to this.
“It might provide an indication of where you need to put a bit more effort,” he said.
“But also, provide the basis for some communities to be targeted.”
But it is leaving organisations like Wise Well Women in the dark.
“We would really like to get data from the vaccination hub about the increase in numbers from the communities that we’ve spoken to,” co-convener Chris Nunn said.
“Then we’d know what impact we’re having.”
Change will take time
While there may not be data, Ms Taher is certain each interaction is making a difference.
“Our role is not just to make a session,” she said.
“We need to give awareness to the people whenever we find an opportunity.
“Even when we are gathering, or we see them shopping or someone asks our opinion.”
But she knows change won’t happen overnight.
“We cannot say, we did a session, boom, they will come,” she said.
“It’s not happening in a moment, but one conversation at a time.”