SYDNEY – How do you ensure health security for a population scattered over 15 islands dispersed over 690,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean? Partnership, collaboration and coordination, Dr. Josephine Herman, Secretary of Health of the Cook Islands said here on Wednesday. Herman is tasked with keeping the small island nation safe from pandemic influenza, outbreaks of dengue and other vector-borne diseases, and the impacts of climate change including rising sea levels and increasingly frequent extreme weather events. She does it by working closely with other health ministers in the Pacific region and working to help communities to strengthen their own health security.
Pacific Islanders are no strangers to having to protect themselves against influenza and other infectious disease threats brought by Western missionaries, Herman said, adding, however, “We are still vulnerable to pandemics and cannot sit on our laurels.”
“We are a small country, but we have a big ocean,” she said. “We have similar health challenges as other countries, but in different contexts.” Those contexts demand agility to enable swift mobilization of limited resources, she said.
Meeting at least twice a year to discuss high-level health issues and develop coordination plans to respond to pandemic influenza and other infectious disease outbreak, Pacific Island health ministers also rely on the World Health Organization and larger nations like Australia and the U.S. for technical guidance and operational support, she said.
At the national level, Herman said, she is focused on building public health and preparedness capacities among communities “so that the people have the knowledge we hold in this.”
Making the most of limited resources also includes recruiting retired public health specialists to provide expertise on safe water and sanitation issues and training small numbers of people within communities to be able to respond to health emergencies resulting from extreme weather events, she said. Herman also looks to use the expertise of the Pacific Islander diaspora living in Australia and New Zealand, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
“Whenever we have a cyclone we have people show up willing to help but they need to be organized and trained,” Herman said. With the warming of the climate and rising sea levels, she said, Pacific islands are preparing for more extreme weather events and the infectious disease threats that come with them, “Time is not on our side when we look at how the world is evolving.”
“Tuvalu will be under water in 50 years,” she said. “We have no choice, these threats are sitting alongside us every day.”
Rabita Aziz is senior global health policy specialist at the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which produces this blog.