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Experts warn Indigenous vaccination rates must increase before reopening country

Sarah Smit -

Seventeen of the 20 worst regions for vaccination of Aboriginal people are in Western Australia and Queensland, with experts warning that COVID-19 could get into WA's remote Aboriginal communities within 30 days of arriving in the State.

The most recently available data shows that only 20.6 per cent of WA mob have had their first jab, with just 10.99 percent fully vaccinated.

Traditional Owners in the WA outback are the least vaccinated of any area in Australia, with just nine per cent of those living in the Southern Outback region having received both doses of the vaccine.

At 13.53 per cent double jabbed, mob living in the Wheatbelt are more likely to be fully vaccinated than those living in Mandurah (11.34 percent), North East Perth (11.42 percent), or South East Perth (13.04 percent), but are still in the eighth worst vaccinated area in the country.

That's compared to a national average of 34 percent for one jab and 18.5 percent for two.

Michael Small is a Maths and Statistics Professor at the University of Western Australia; his modelling shows that if WA was to experience a NSW-style outbreak, the State would only have 30 days before the virus made its way to remote communities.

He says his modelling shows a "chronic" vulnerability in remote Aboriginal communities.

"My model was assuming that people are moving from the urban centres to remote communities. Largely, these are Aboriginal people, and if those people are more vulnerable or less vaccinated then there's more transmission to those communities," he said.

"The modelling showed that until the vaccination rate is at around 80 or 90 percent, then these communities are at great risk of local transmission within about a month [of the virus arriving in the State]."

Professor Small also noted that as cases rise, contact tracing becomes less effective as a tool against the virus.

"You can deal with it when there's a couple of cases. You can deal with it when it's hundreds of cases. If there's thousands of cases you can get a thousand contact tracers, but it's very hard to get 10,000 people doing contact tracing. It's not feasible," he said.

The Professor also said his modelling shows that vaccination is the best way to keep remote communities safe by preventing the virus from spreading.

"There's a virtuous cycle where if you have lots and lots of vaccination, that will help make the contact tracer's job easier and more effective," he said.

Of the 20 worst regions for vaccination of Aboriginal people, nine are in WA. Photo via Department of Health.

Concerns also remain in Queensland, where the most recent data shows that vaccination for Aboriginal people is lagging far behind the general population.

Only 28.7 per cent of the Aboriginal population in Queensland has received at least one jab, and only 16.7 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Byellee man Matthew Cooke is Chair of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council, and is concerned that too many Aboriginal people won't be fully vaccinated when the general population gets to 80 per cent coverage.

"I think the challenge here is if the national target is to open up as the community hits 70-80 percent and we're still lagging well behind for First Nations people, then we've got a very, very big problem on our hands," he said.

Cooke said public health campaigns are the key to getting mob vaccinated.

"Governments at all levels, the Australian Government and the Queensland Government, and all the other State, Territory Governments must be thinking and doing more and investing more... around localized campaigns to encourage our people to have both vaccinations, but importantly, at least have the first vaccination," he said.

By Sarah Smit

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