When the National Cabinet sits this week to sort out the mess that is Australia’s national COVID19 vaccine rollout, women must be at the heart of the fix.
As the chief health decision makers in Australian families, the health literacy of women is critical to confidence. Yet, so far, governments across the country have taken little interest in the COVID19 health needs of women and the relationship with vaccine efficacy.
Funding to women’s health services – which provide tailored, gender-based health information and education in community – is in crisis. Federally, the Australian Women’s Health Network has been unfunded since 2016, while in Victoria State Budgets have failed to keep pace with a fast-growing population seeing an effective 50% erosion in funding for women’s health services.
The underfunding of women’s health during a global pandemic with a national vaccination program in disarray is downright dangerous.
Even before the Astra-Zeneca balls up, vaccine hesitancy was high amongst Australian women, particularly around child-bearing ages of 30-39. Mixed messages about the safety of being immunised while trying to conceive, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding – coupled with the lack of vaccine trial data relevant to pregnant women – fuelled a growing nervousness about immunisation. Research by Gallup and the Pew Research Centre reveals gender-based vaccine hesitancy is a global problem, not just confined to Australia.
Australian Governments have known since at least 2014 that herd immunity is at risk in Australia because of a growing vaccine hesitancy amongst mothers. Research collected by the Australian Longitudinal study of Australian Children, revealed the vast majority of under immunised children are in families living in poverty and disadvantage. As the gap between rich a poor widens, so too does knowledge about the benefits of immunisation. Women in low-socio economic households struggle to access health information and are often too time poor, juggling employment, welfare accountability and child-care responsibilities to access specialist advice and services. When women live in single parent households in medically isolated communities, vaccination uptake declines further. Governments know that without tailored health education for disadvantaged women with children, entire families can remain unimmunised.
Likewise, women make up the largest cohort of conscientious objectors or anti-vaxxers. These women are predominantly white, affluent and deeply influenced by the wellness industry. The health education and information needs of this cohort of women also needs a completely different, but no less important, gendered communication strategy.
Vaccine hesitancy amongst women is not hysteria. It’s totally understandable.
Stories abound about how medical research overlooks the particular needs of women’s bodies, failing to properly test and manufacture breast and birth control implants, to apply a gender lens to cardio-vascular disease and to fund research into breast, ovarian and uterine cancer.
While the pharmacological failure of morning sickness drug Thalidomide led to the development of greater drug regulation and monitoring across the world, women have not forgotten the high costs they and their children pay when medical treatments meant to heal them, hurt them instead.
Just as women learn to grip keys in their fingers in self-defence while walking home at night, so too women learn self-reliance in medicine; taking matters into their own hands when it comes to treatment options, adapting advice to address the medical data invisibility of women.
Maintaining confidence of women in vaccine safety is essential to the national roll-out. This is why funding tailored gender health education and information is so critical.
Sadly, the COVID19 National Policy is entirely silent on gender, with no appreciation of the benefits of tailored distribution and communication strategies that address women’s concerns. This is despite the National Women’s Health Plan 2020-203O calling on governments to “invest in translating gender into all health policy design, development and service delivery and supporting women0-run services and women-centred care.”
Women’s health services are perfectly placed to assist in vaccine information rollout and to provide support to GP’s in helping women understand the nuances of decisions at various reproductive and other life stages.
In Victoria, the state hardest hit by the health, economic and social consequences of virus outbreak, Women’s Health Services are located in nine metropolitan and regional locations, providing geographic and demographic expertise in health promotion. Specialist statewide services, including for migrant and refugee women and women with disability, are ready to do some of the heavy lifting alongside government in explaining the nexus between sexual and reproductive health and safe vaccine use.
Women’s health experts know what women need. Victorian women’s health services have called for an immediate injection of $54 Million into their services to correct population growth impact on their core funding and to ensure women have adequate tailored health information during the COVID19 disaster. It’s a small price to pay to ensure that women and their children have the right information to make confident health choices.
The failure to translate women’s health priorities into the Australian COVID19 health response – and properly fund it – is no surprise when we consider that there are no women Treasurers at all – 0% – allocating budgets for vaccine education and rollout.
While the big swinging dicks of Federal and State Treasuries bicker over GST revenue, credit card interest rates and who will pay for vaccine roll out, women’s health languishes without adequate funding during the worst health crisis in a generation.
Women don’t care where the money is coming from for health information. They want knowledge that they can share now with their partners and children. The side-lining of women and underinvestment in their health needs is a high risk strategy for governments desperate to get vaccine rollout back on track.