Respiratory Issues in Māori

May 24, 2022, 2:39 p.m.


In the 1700 -1800s, the Māori population declined by 10% due to the introduction of new diseases, such as influenza, typhoid fever, yellow fever, plague, tuberculosis and asthma.

Treatments used included Rongoā Māori (Māori medicine and healthcare). An example of rongoā for a respiratory-type illness was the infusion of a plant called 'Kumerahou'. It was used to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis, wounds, skin disorders and blood purification. It was also called 'Gumdiggers Soap'. A traditional healing system of Māori that focuses on tikanga, the transmission of knowledge, karakia, herbal remedies, physical therapies and spiritual healing.

Rongoā was widely practiced in the open until the introduction of the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. The Act was developed as a preventative to "rogue" tohunga that lacked the training and conduct of traditional tohunga who had been passed down generational knowledge. This type of medicine was seen as unsafe, but, today, rongoā is now advocated by the World Health Organisation and regional health boards are working on the inclusion of rongoā Māori in their own frameworks across Aotearoa.

Asthma attacks, also called episodes or exacerbations, happen when there has been exposure to an allergen like dust mites, pollen, trees or cockroaches and bugs. Chemicals, the flu, sinusitis and smoke can also trigger asthma.

Statistics show Māori and Pasifika are some of the most vulnerable, to not only having asthma, a non-curable disease, but also for being hospitalised when it comes to respiratory disease. Respiratory disease is the third most common cause of death in Aotearoa. The Māori Asthma Review promotes the significance of treating diseases, like asthma, from a Māori worldview.

"It is important that in addition to marae-based initiatives, all areas of the health service become more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of Maori people. A truly bicultural perspective will contribute towards the elimination of the existing differences in health status” (Maori Asthma Review (Professor Eru Pomare (Convenor), Hohua Tutengaehe, Irihapeti Ramsden, Makere Hight, Neil Pearce, Vera Ormsby).

Incorporating a Māori worldview into healthcare frameworks will help our people better understand what asthma is, how it works, the symptoms and the treatment. As the World Health Organisation increases their advocacy behind holistic remedies contributed by rongoā practitioners and adopt mātauranga Māori into their networks, we will begin to see a shift in statistics.  

World Asthma Day (WAD) was founded in 1993 by the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA), to raise awareness of asthma worldwide. This year it was held on the 5th of May and Associate Professor Dr Philip Pattemore spoke to Te Hiku Radio about the number of gaps in asthma care that require intervention in order to reduce preventable suffering, as well as the costs incurred by treating uncontrolled asthma.


Māori health care and asthma discussions have been taking place for a long time in a western setting and in wānanga. Te Hiku Media took a look through Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision archives from the early 1900s to listen to Dr Paparangi Reid (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa), of The Asthma Foundation of New Zealand, talk about trigger warnings and what to do when struggling with it. Dr Makere Hight (Ngāpuhi) also spoke on Māori medicine in asthma treatment;

“Māori medicine is fine but I don’t use it. But I’ve heard lots about it. For me Māori medicine is fine if it provides a cure for asthma.” 

The host then explained;

“What she is saying quite right. We can use both Māori medicine and modern day medicine together to benefit our people and improve their living standards.”

Treatment of respiratory diseases shouldn't be taken lightly. With high mortality rates and the need to be able to act fast, you need to be prepared. Te Hiku Hauora offer free education, treatment, monitoring and support for those with asthma and respiratory issues. Inhalers, inhaled corticosteroids, anti-inflammatories and overall general health are the main treatments for asthma. Lifestyle changes are also taught and encouraged. For example, quitting smoking, regular hygiene around caring for pets as their fur can act as a trigger sometimes, changing linen due to dust mites and overall hygiene to keep your breathing space clear. Far North Pharmacy spoke to Te Hiku Radio about different treatments available and gave advice around what is known to trigger asthma. Making full use of the resources around you to better care for our whānau will help us do our part, while educating other whānau to do the same.

We can then attempt to shift our mortality and hospital admission rates to the lower scale with mahi tahi.


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