Kids' health suffers in cold house

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 05:00 11/12/2013
Amy Tuuga with her daughters
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ

STRUGGLING: Amy Tuuga with her daughters, from left, Avei, 6, Hope, 3, Mareta, 10, Ursla, 5, and Moeivai, 8.

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Five daughters struggling with headlice, constant sickness in winter, an aggravated skin condition and asthma in a "freezing cold" house.

This is the reality for poverty-stricken Amy Tuuga, who is straining her meagre benefit to provide for her large family as a solo parent.

The Tuuga family lives in a four-bedroom Housing New Zealand home, which she believes is making her children sick.

Mould lines the walls in her children's rooms and mats are strewn across the floor in an attempt to keep out the cold.

Tuuga says her five daughters are "constantly" sick in winter because of their cold, damp home.

Her oldest daughter has asthma, which is aggravated by the living conditions, and she suspects her 7-year-old daughter has it too.

"You see it when they're just running around. It's really scary."

The children were all suffering from an undiagnosed dry skin condition on their arms, which was unsuccessfully treated with skin creams. Tuuga was advised to take them to a skin-care specialist, but she cannot afford it.

Because they all had long hair, the children often had headlice which "sometimes gets really bad", Tuuga said.

Working with a budget adviser, Tuuga allocated $150 a week to feed her family, however, growing bills often meant it was much less than this.

"They've got lunch, that's the main thing. If we haven't got any money for the shop we get a bag of rice, bread and butter . . . sometimes we have that for one or two days."

Their former Aranui house was badly damaged in the earthquakes and needed to be demolished. The night of the February quake, the six-person family slept in a car as they had nowhere else to go.

Tuuga recently resigned from a job at Pak 'n Save as her mother's epilepsy meant she could no longer look after the children.

To add to the strain, her dentist had just told her her 8-year-old daughter required braces.

"I don't know what to do.

"I love to work, but my kids mean the world to me," she said.

Tuuga's husband was imprisoned in 2011 and is serving a 15-year sentence.

"What I'm planning for this family I'm just planning for myself and the kids because I don't know if he's coming back," she said.

"I'm not thinking about myself. I'm just thinking about the future of my kids."

The family received support from agencies across the city, and Fendalton School had organised a welfare agency to pay for her children's school fees - help she said she was "very proud" of.

Tuuga refused to contemplate a return to Samoa, as she insisted the quality of life was still better here. Instead, she focused her time and energy into providing her kids with "happiness", admitting their needs often came before bills and rent.

"I'm just not happy. Sometimes if I'm thinking too much about the bills it gets emotional.

"I feel very sorry for my kids. They've been through a lot with the earthquakes, their father's not around . . . The kids are dealing with the hardship, it's a very hard life they're dealing with."

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While most welfare and health agencies do not blame the earthquake for causing a rise in poverty-related illnesses in the city, they say it is exacerbating an already dire situation.

However, each general practitioner spoken to by The Press pointed to cramped and inadequate housing as the leading contributor to poverty-related illnesses.

Pacific Island Evaluation social worker To'alepai Louella Thomsen-Inder said Christchurch was dealing with illnesses rarely seen in developed countries.

Unhealed sores, asthma and eczema, respiratory problems, scabies and diphtheria were plaguing low socio-economic families due to the way they were living.

"These are preventable conditions and some are infectious," she said.

"Some of the illnesses are only seen in Third World countries, we shouldn't be seeing them in Christchurch."

Some stressed families were now beleaguered by a "cycle of infections", which were harder to fight due to worn-down immune systems, overcrowding and poor nutrition.

New Brighton GP Kim Burgess said "significant numbers of people across the spectrum" were struggling with physical and mental illness in the wake of the earthquakes.

"In the 30 years I've been in practice I've never had as many people essentially homeless," she said.

"The conditions that we associate with poverty like tuberculosis and rheumatic fever, I haven't seen those here in the time I've been a GP until the last couple of years."

The CDHB and Pegasus Health declined to comment due to the lack of data and statistics on poverty-related illness in the city.

- The Press

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