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Action needed to boost low Indigenous youth COVID-19 vaccination rate, health officials say



Edgard Villanueva-Cruz is like a lot of other urban Indigenous youth: the 19-year-old Tahltan lives in Vancouver, where he works and goes to school. He regularly washes his hands, masks up and keeps his social circle small.

But Villanueva-Cruz isn’t fully vaccinated. In fact, he’s choosing not to get vaccinated at all.

“I think it’s in my heart because, you know, I have free will,” he said. “You know, I have the right to determine my health, my status, my political position and my economic position as a Canadian and as an Indigenous person.”

Only 54 per cent of Indigenous youth between 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, compared to 73 per cent of non-Indigenous youth in the same age category.

Fifty-three per cent of those age 18 to 29 are fully vaccinated, compared to 82 per cent of their non-Indigenous peers.

Fifty-four per cent of Indigenous youth between 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, compared to 73 per cent of non-Indigenous youth of the same age, while 53 per cent of those age 18 to 29 are fully vaccinated, compared to 82 per cent of their non-Indigenous peers. (First Nations Health Authority and CDC data)

With variants of the disease circulating widely in Canada, health officials are trying to get Indigenous youth vaccinated — but they remain an elusive demographic to reach.

“We’ve had several cases of people in their 20s and 30s who have ended up in ICU or who have even lost their lives to COVID,” said Dr. Shannon McDonald, the interim chief medical health officer with the First Nations Health Authority. 

For Villanueva-Cruz, contracting COVID-19 in August didn’t change his mind.

“I had to isolate and my symptoms weren’t all that bad. It was pretty mild. And, you know, it affects everyone differently,” said Villanueva-Cruz, who is now symptom-free. 

Distrust in systems that serve First Nations

McDonald cites government mistrust, vaccine side effects, fertility and cultural safety as chief among the reasons for Indigenous youth vaccine hesitancy.

“And with the residential school issues being front and centre and the Indian hospitals being front and centre, there’s a lot of discussion about trust in systems that serve First Nations,” she said. 

At the outset of the pandemic, fear of what the pandemic could do to Indigenous elders resulted in a strong campaign to get them vaccinated against COVID-19. Today, 90 per cent of Indigenous elders (age 70 and over) are fully vaccinated.

But officials have been unable to replicate that success with Indigenous youth.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

“We didn’t see a whole lot of [COVID-19] cases in young people early on. Most of them were in the elder population,” McDonald said. “So it may be that we didn’t communicate that risk being universal in the way that we probably should have.”

The health authority is now collaborating with influencer Kiefer Collision for their #VaxChamps campaign promoting COVID-19 vaccines.

McDonald says she is also aware of a pending federal initiative that will extend vaccine messaging outreach through Facebook and Instagram.

“We continue to do that work. But the most effective work is often face-to-face,” she said.

“And it’s very hard to do that when there are 203 communities we’re serving plus our urban population. Who are here, there and everywhere.”

‘That’s what ultimately pushed me to get the vaccine’

At the start of the pandemic, Jessica Savoy says she wasn’t confident about getting vaccinated.

She says she’s not an anti-vaxxer, but she maintains a “healthy distrust” of government agencies and doesn’t take their information at face value.

“I know I have a healthy immune system,” she said. “Why do I need to stick something in my body when the chances of me fighting off this virus and surviving is very high?”

But recent events got her to think about her position, she says: her 84-year-old grandmother recently contracted COVID-19, and she has plans and dreams of her own, which include travelling.

So she decided to get vaccinated — and has already received her first dose. 

Jessica Savoy didn’t have confidence in getting vaccinated at the start of the pandemic, but she’s since decided to get the shots. (Jessica Savoy)

“I was going to wait as long as I could, but that’s what ultimately pushed me to get the vaccine,” she said. “And also the idea of wanting to visit family.”

Authorities hope to reach more people like Jessica, who were once skeptical of vaccination.

Former B.C. Children and Youth advocate Mary Ellen Turpell-Lafond, who recently steered the In Plain Sight Report says all levels of government need to collaborate on a specific vaccination program for Indigenous youth. 

If officials want to find youth, they need to promote immunizations through youth organizations and support youth influencers to promote this campaign, she says.

“That will be much more successful than anything else,” Turpel-Lafond said.




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