Ricky Te Akau is a stalwart in New Zealand sexual health. Firstly at the NZAF from 2011 to 2018, when he engaged their renowned LYC (Love Your Condom) campaign with Māori MSM (men who have sex with men), and now at Te Whāriki Takapou, the only Kaupapa Māori sexual health promotions and research organisation in the country. He talks to Tux Hika about the new Māori Health Authority, and the SPOTS study, which aims to remove discrimination from blood donation in Aotearoa.
What inspired you to get into working in the health promotion space?
Wanting to help others. I think that this is a very Māori trait, to be in a line of work that is less dollar-focused, but you feel that you’re making a difference.
Where do you call home?
I am split between two places at the moment, my home on Waiheke with my tane in Tamaki Makaurau, and where I am today, in Turangi.
What brings you to Turangi?
I had come home to visit my mum and whanau, which was about the time. my sister, who is a trustee for Te Kapua Whakapipi the office of Paramount Chief Te Ariki Tā Tumu Te Heuheu, had announced Te Kapua Whakapipi had been awarded the contract as the southern lakes covid response unit for the Lakes DHB. It has always been a dream for our Chief to be able to look after whoever lives within our ancestral tribal lands, and Lakes DHB saw the potential in being able to have outreach with iwi Māori. I was brought in as clinical lead to help stand up the organisation in October 2021 with maybe 3 – 4 staff at the time, to where we are now at a team of about 50 that provide covid related welfare to anyone within this region.
What do you do when you are in Tamaki Makaurau?
I have a role at Auckland University in the Faculty of Business and Economics within their programme called Tuakana. We work independently to raise the potential of Māori through mentoring and tutoring, so that they stay within the university, and continue with their higher education journey. There are many nuanced reasons some will drop out, the experience for Rangatahi Māori who might come from a small town say then trying to navigate this campus of 30,00-40,00 people can be really daunting.
On top of this mahi, you also work alongside Te Whāriki Takapou, can you tell us a little about them and how you got involved?
They are the only Kaupapa Māori sexual health promotions and research organisation in the country and are recognised as the foremost organisation within te ao Māori to provide comments and research on Māori sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
My contract came about through the drafting of the virtual STBBI elimination strategy primarily around an HIV prevention action plan. The overall strategy is being headed by the Hon. Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verral. It has not been rewritten since Annette King was the Minister of Health, well over 15 years ago. A lot of the science has changed since then. Covid disrupted things a little, but with the new health budget that’s been announced, it has been reinvigorated.
What projects are you currently working on with Te Whāriki Takapou?
One of the projects we are in partnership on now is the SPOTS Study (Sex and prevention of transmission). The study includes a survey about men who have sex with other men. The information is then used to improve HIV prevention and access to sexual health services.
I had been a part of similar studies in the past and through no-ones fault, they all seemed to lack the inclusion of Māori and Pasifika during the design and consultation phases, which is where the investigators/researchers of the SPOTS study have been amazing. Including Te Whāriki Takapou, Māori and Pasifika voices from the outset. So from the formulation of questions to the look of the social media and respecting cultural sensitivities for Māori around the collection of specimens.
How are you doing in terms of respondents to the SPOTS study?
Even though the respondent numbers have been high, there is a drive to get more surveys completed and more specimens so that we can comfortably sit outside of that margin of error. It was important that access was equitable, you can request for the collection kits to be sent out so you can provide your anonymised specimen at home and send it back to us to review.
It’s also to be able to provide some commentary to the government, to arm advocates to challenge the archaic laws preventing men and women who have anal sex with men, from donating blood and trying to bring legislation more in line with what current science is saying.
What are your thoughts on the Newly established Māori Health Authority?
The move to a new health authority with some leadership from Māori is amazing. When I first heard about it, I thought it was going to be a tokenish nod to Māori, where Māori gain some Mana Motuhake over their own health services, but I have seen some good stuff come out of that so I am looking forward to the changes afoot.