COVID-19 vaccination – Mary G interview with Dr Mark Wenitong

In this radio interview, Mary G speaks with Dr Mark Wenitong, Aboriginal GP and Public Health Medical Officer, asking questions about herd immunity, and the importance of getting vaccinated before COVID-19 comes to your community.


Mary G: Hello, everybody. It’s me, Mary G, mind you. And this COVID thing, well, it’s a scary thing. And, of course, we got to take responsibility as a community, as an individual, even as a country, which is happening, and that is giving vaccinations, mind you, very, very important.

I’m talking to a very, very handsome doctor, Dr Mark Wenitong, mind you. And well, I’ve got a crush on him, and I’m not sure if he’ll counsel me privately as well, whaddayow, but we shall see. Dr Mark has played an important role to support the Department of Health COVID health communication, mind you. And Dr Wenitong, how are you darling?

Mark: I’m very good today. Thanks.

Mary G: Oh, fantastic. You got a beautiful voice like Morgan Freeman.

Mark: Yeah. Well, I practice that voice, you know, in the mirror.

Mary G: Ah, in the mirror, my God.

Mark: Well, you know.

Mary G: Well, there you go. Why not. Now, look, I got some questions to ask you Doctor. And first of all, just tell me what you’re doing now and who you work for at the moment?

Mark: So, at the moment, I’m co-chairing a clinical Network for Queensland Health over here in Queensland. Working with the Lowitja Institute, an Aboriginal community controlled research Institute in Melbourne, but that’s national. It’s one of the most deadliest organisations around at the moment. So I’m the Research Translation Director there. And I worked with the Australian government. I sit on that national COVID committee for our mob as well, but.

And my background is not just as a medical doctor for the last 25, 26 years. I worked in serology and immunology and virology in laboratories and studied at the Centre for Disease Control in the US around infectious diseases as well. So it’s kind of my background this stuff.

Mary G: Mm, well, what about Maryology?

Mark: What’s that, sorry?

Mary G: Maryology.

Mark: [Laughs].

Mary G: Surely you can study me! [Laughs].

Mark: [Laughs].

Mary G: So Mark, if I may ask you, you’ve been passionate about promoting COVID safe behaviours and now COVID-19 vaccination. What motivates you?

Mark: This is one of the most important times in our history I think. That’s what’s motivating me at the moment. I’m seriously concerned for our communities around this virus getting in and causing havoc.

So when these things are introduced, it’s a big concern for us if we haven’t been in contact with this kind of virus before, which most of our mob, well, most of the world, hasn’t been before. So it’s a really, really important time for us and really important time for us to be like taking care of each other as well.

Mary G: Well, my homestead of Western Australia is currently behind in national vaccination rates. So does your home state of Queensland.

Mark: Yeah.

Mary G: What are your thoughts on why we are a bit slower to get protected against COVID-19?

Mark: Oh look, I think there’s a few reasons. But basically it’s been because we’ve been trying to respond pretty quickly to a massive, you know, international pandemic. And so, and so people get a bit worried about that.

Then there’s all this, there’s a lot of rubbish online information that seems to be coming through about all these alternate things and why not to get vaccinated and stuff like that. And look, honestly, there’s no science in that, you know, and, and I’ve gone through pretty much all of those and looked at the science behind them and gotta be really careful about that stuff. And to be honest, probably take a holiday from social media for a while. And so that makes people a bit hesitant as well, you know, like a bit worried about getting a shot and stuff like that.

Mary G: Mm. And not to mention, I’ve heard rumours that they’re putting the devil in you?

Mark: Yeah, look there’s been all of these rumours and I’ve been and some of them like, you know, if people believe in them, they just believe them. But all I can say is as a health professional and as an Aboriginal man that the vaccine is one of the safest vaccines we’ve had. And it’s also one of the most effective vaccines we’ve ever had. And if we want to be the people that take care, particularly of our older people who are most at risk of getting really sick and dying, then we’ve got to get vaccinated. Because what happened was we did everything else really good in all our communities, you know, all that social distancing, all that sort of stuff and restrictions and stuff like that. And then, and we hardly had anyone at all who was infected. We only had probably about 160 people across Australia who got infected and nobody had passed away from it in our communities, you know. That was fantastic, and we did good in that.

And then the next step though is, because this virus is going to spread, whether we like it or not, is to get everyone as vaccinated as possible, particularly our older people to protect them from serious illness. But as well, our younger people because that’s where transmission happens often, you know, so they’re the ones that can pass it on more. So we’ve got to get that message out to our young people as well.

And the third thing that’s a bit of a worry, is that, you know, it’ll be good when the vaccine can be given to younger people as well. Because, you know, our communities for the rest of the population, when they say everybody above 12, a pretty high proportion of their population. But for us, a lot of our mob are below 12, you know, so there’s easier spread in that sort of sense.

So we’ve got to be much, much more careful for our communities. And we just got to take care of each other. You know, like talking to some of their mob from the American Indians over there in the US some of their doctors, and they were saying, they, they call it an act of love getting vaccinated for their communities. So that’s the way they’ve been approaching it. And I think look for us, it’s, it’s what we’d normally do, you know, culturally, we’d take care of our elders.

That’s the way I see this, this, this is where we stand up and be counted. And, and honestly, even to some people are a little bit worried about it. This is where you show leadership because leadership don’t come when there’s nothing to be worried about. This is when leadership comes, when you say, look there are some risks, but I think it’s better for my community if I take this shot so that everybody else is protected as well. And I think that’s where we should be.

Mary G: Mm. So the message is we should not wait until COVID is on our doorstep to get vaccinated. We see a lot of people when there’s an outbreak suddenly rushing to be vaccinated. Why is that not a good approach?

Mark: Yeah, look as you know that’s exactly what happened in western New South Wales. So all our mob down there had low rates of getting vaccinated. And as soon as outbreak was there, everybody suddenly realised how bad it was and they lost elders, a number of elders down there. And it, it was a big concern to everyone straightaway. And so, everyone went out and get got vaccinated but a little bit late, you know, because the outbreak had already happened. So if we get vaccinated now, before any outbreak happens, we’ll be doubly protected. So will we be able to protect ourselves from getting the virus. It’s not a hundred per cent effective, but what it does do, if you even do get it, you know, maybe 10 to 20 per cent who can still get it, it’s nowhere near as bad as, as if you are not vaccinated. And so far, even in New South Wales, pretty much all of the people who have passed away from COVID have been unvaccinated. So it reduces your risk of, you know, getting really, really sick.

But the other thing is it reduces your risk of giving it to somebody else as well by a fair bit. So not a hundred per cent, but it’s still really useful in our fight against everybody in our mob getting this, this virus aye.

Mary G: Doctor, what about the side effects? What can people expect?

Mark: Well, you know, I’ve heard some of the most weirdest side effects I’ve ever heard of in the last 25 years of medicine around this. And look, honestly, the most common side effects are the same as your usual vaccines. You know, just a bit of soreness at that site, maybe a bit of a fever over the next day or two. Those kinds of things,. Just normal kinds of side effects and reactions.

So the one that was causing some problems was that AZ vaccination with very small amount of people had a clotting problem in their brain, but that vaccine is not being used much anymore. And we’ve swapped pretty much all to Pfizer for our mob. And so that shouldn’t be a problem.

But overall look, those kinds of things are very, very, very rare. So the benefits for your community and your health are much higher than of, you know avoiding the virus and not getting it from being vaccinated are a much higher than the risk of any of those things. And to be honest, if you get the virus your, your risk of getting sick with clots, you know, and heart attacks and pneumonia are much, much, much higher than any side effects,

Mary G: You’ve been a GP and a health professional for a number of years now. Should pregnant women get vaccinated against COVID-19? Is it safe for them? And what about new mums who are now breastfeeding their bubs?

Mark: Yeah, look, from all of the data that we’ve collected so far, and, you know, we’ve vaccinated billions of people worldwide now, so it’s probably one of the biggest studies ever done. And so far there is no indication that there are any problems with pregnancy or with breastfeeding. And so our health professionals are recommending that. And my co-chair in one of my committees, who’s a Torres Strait Islander woman, is an obstetrician and who is pregnant, got double vaccinated as well a couple of weeks ago, like this is safe. And what we’re hearing from overseas is women who don’t get vaccinated who get into trouble with COVID can have very bad outcomes, you know, when they have to turn up to hospital with a COVID infection and they’re pregnant.

So currently, the medical advice is that there are no known issues that we know about so far with this, and we’ve studied lots and lots of people so far. So it looks very safe in pregnancy and in breastfeeding and no contra-indications at the moment, yeah.

Mary G: Mm. A lot of our mob have other health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and other problems. Will the COVID-19 vaccine make these conditions worse? Can they be safely vaccinated?

Mark: Look, those are exactly the people that we need to get vaccinated because it’s those conditions that predispose you or make you be able to get this virus worse. So that’s why we’re really trying to take care of the older people who do have those Type 2 diabetes, you know, obesity, heart problems, high blood pressure problems, those kinds of things. This is probably the best protection we can get for them, as well as, you know, all that social distancing and those other things. But this one now it’s really they're, they’re one of our target groups most, you know, make sure they’re the most vaccinated because they’re the most at risk of getting the virus itself. So really important that they actually get it. And don’t, don’t, you know, don’t stay away from clinics because you’re worried that you’ve got chronic disease so you won’t be eligible or can’t get it. No, that’s when you really need that vaccine.

Mary G: And we hear a bit about medical reasons that prevent a person from being vaccinated. What are those conditions and how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would that affect?

Mark: Look they’re rare. Most of the conditions we’re talking about, even the ones that I thought might be contra--, you know, like might be bad. But some people with bleeding conditions, clotting conditions and stuff like that, very, very rare things. We just don’t have a lot of so far anyway in our communities and. Or we at least don’t know of a lot of those kinds of conditions but they’re very, very rare.

Mary G: Can you explain in simple terms that the concept of, I’ve never heard of it before, herd immunity?

Mark: Oh look, herd immunity is just a term we use to show that if, if most of the population gets vaccinated, then when the virus comes as a whole population we’ll do much better than if there’s big pockets of people who are not vaccinated. So herd immunity is reaching a certain percentage. You know, we, you know, the value may be 80 to a hundred per cent of people getting vaccinated. Then when the germ comes, it’s got nowhere to go, basically.

So, in actual fact, what’s happened in the past with things like some of those really bad diseases in the past is that we’ve got so good at vaccination that they’ve disappeared altogether. And that’s kind of what we’re aiming for with herd immunity, with proper herd immunity, you know. So, and no pools of that virus hanging around in people anywhere because everybody’s protected.

But getting to that level is as, you know, has been a bit hard for our mob for all those reasons we talked about it at the start. So but it’s really important that we aim for as many people as we can to get vaccinated. So anytime the virus comes in, you know, everybody smash it instead of it smashing us.

Mary G: So, if we can achieve herd immunity, who will that protect?

Mark: Well, this well, if Australia gets the herd immunity without us, well, it will protect them but not us. So that’s where we got to catch up pretty quick. But if we do get to herd immunity, that means that the impact of, you know, this, this virus on our community will be much, much, much less than what it would be if everybody hasn’t come into contact with that virus before, and it just hits us. One time, it just smashes us, you know. So if you’ve got some vaccine or some immunity already from being in contact with that virus which is the same thing, really, you know, you can vaccinate to get that immunity or you can get the virus to get the immunity. So if we get to that level, then most people will have, you know, be able to respond. Their bodies will respond when the virus comes in and we’ll smash it before it really does any damage.

And that’s not to say like that, you know, some people still can’t get infected because lots of things happen and, and lots of people don’t have proper good immunity, you know, so can’t respond, you know, people that are on cancer therapy and things like that. But that’s where we aim to be, yeah, and that's how we aim to do it. Like it’s, is getting many people vaccinated as possible. And then all those that are vaccinated, those that have been in contact with the virus that have all their antibodies and all that response in their body to attack the virus when it comes in and all set up. And then our body starts working out how to fight that thing. And then it doesn’t forget that our cells in our body don’t forget that thing. So next time it comes, granny’s walking stick hits that over the head. But that’s the same kind of thing, you know, so our bodies remember and they hold onto that memory and then next time the mob come and we just fight them off quick.

Mary G: We always look after each other. And we’ve done a really good job of looking after family and community through this pandemic. Are you confident that we can get everyone vaccinated against this virus as well, and what do you think?

Mark: I'm look, hey, we’ve, we’ve done so well so far that to, to fall over now would be a terrible thing. And I think we absolutely can do this because, you know, for us, you know, like, you know, back in when this thing started off and other people were saying, oh, you know, just open up and let the virus in. We don’t, we don’t care if a few old people die, you know. And we’re all going, no, no, no, that’s not us. That’s not us at all. We take care of our old people, you know.

But it’s going to take all of us putting aside some of those weird things we’ve been hearing on the internet and stuff like that. Talking to, you know, spiritual people and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pastors that you, that are, that you trust. And have good science in their background as well, and really understand these kinds of things and talk to trusted health professionals and your health workers about this.

But if you’re sort of wondering whether to vaccinated or not, you gotta, you gotta get vaccinated. It’s really, really important. So, you know, like my, my understanding of our mob is that we will take care of each other. We will do things that sometimes make us a bit uncomfortable. We don’t necessarily, you know, feel that comfortable with, but we’re still doing it for our elders and we’re still in there making sure that other people are safe and protecting our communities. And that’s, that’s what we usually do. So we, we gotta do it this time as well.

And the last thing we want is, you know, things like western New South Wales happening in any of our remote communities because what we learned from that is the system can’t cope. So, you know, I don’t know if you can imagine, but, you know, if one person in a remote community has got it has to be airlifted out, that’s, that’s a big hassle, but because by the time we diagnosed one, three to four other people will probably be positive. Then we’ll be trying to scramble for oxygen and all that kind of stuff and the clinics and retrieval planes and the hospitals won’t be able to cope either.

But I just think for our mob, you know, we’ve already been through, you know, like, you know, these kind of outbreaks before, way back in the day. But we’ve got to stay together and take care of each other.

Mary G: That's it.

Mark: And the best way we can take care of each other at the moment is by getting vaccinated. And so that’s all I can say about that. But I know we can do it, you know, because I know that we, we love our communities and our mob, you know.

Mary G: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health leader, Dr Mark Wenitong, mind you. A man that should be taking care of me too. Could you take care of me?

Mark: I could fly over, especially just to do a clinic for you.

Mary G: Oh, darling. That’s what I want. I want a man like you look who could look after me.

Mark: [Laughs].

Mary G: Yeah. Dr Wenitong, thank you so much for talking to me. And I hope you do a fantastic job, as you do, in terms of making sure our people are vaccinated across the country, and speak again.

Mark: No worries. Thank you Mary and fantastic to speak to you.

Mary G: No worries, darling. Look, I’ve got a finger that’s looking for a ring.

Mark: Okay. [Laughs]. Okay. See you later.

Mary G: Thank you darling.

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Please note, this audio recording was published on 23 November 2021. Updated health advice was provided on 09 December 2021, recommending the Comirnaty (Pfizer) vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years old. For more information read the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation’s statement.

Note: The National Coronavirus Helpline and Easy Vaccine Access service are no longer in service.

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