Pacific Island health systems at breaking point

BRISTOL, United Kingdom – The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed loopholes in the health systems of the Pacific Islands. With a population scattered over small islands, there are many logistical and financial challenges to providing a health system accessible to all. Most specialist and hospital care is limited to densely populated areas where it can be staffed and have easy access to resources. This means that people living in rural areas have limited access to services and, in the event of a health crisis, they have to travel long distances at high cost to receive health care. By the time they arrive at hospitals, hospitals are often already at or near full capacity during pre-pandemic times. Now hospitals are overwhelmed if cases suddenly increase.

COVID-19 and Pacific Island Health Systems

In many Pacific islands, which are still developing, the indirect effects of COVID-19 are much worse than the direct effects. Despite a low number of cases, fears related to the spread of the virus have led to a diversion of health resources towards preventive measures.

This means that efforts to tackle endemic diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV / AIDS and malaria receive less attention, resulting in more deaths and an increase in these diseases. A study found that deaths from malaria could increase by up to at 36% in five years due to interruptions of new campaigns and other interventions. HIV deaths could increase by 10% due to less access antiretrovirals, and deaths from tuberculosis could increase by 20% due to discontinuation of treatment. More broadly than these specific diseases, there have been widespread reports in the islands of a decline in sexual and reproductive health services, child and maternal health services, and treatment for gender and family violence.

Multilateral responses

The fragile health systems of the Pacific Islands have alarmed many people around the world. The situation has drawn global support in the region to strengthen the capacity to respond to the COVID-19 health crisis and provide ongoing health care to those suffering from unrelated health conditions.

As a close neighbor and ally of the Pacific Islands, Australia has been one of the largest donors of assistance and aid to mitigate the potentially damaging long-term health effects of the pandemic. In June 2020, Australia had disbursed approximately $ 70 million the development budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Pacific region as a whole, as well as the deployment of health experts to Fiji and the Solomon Islands to assist with long-term planning and implementation. end of a stronger and more resilient health system.

After praise from around the world for its national efforts in dealing with the pandemic, New Zealand – another close neighbor to the Pacific Islands – has also provided generous aid. By the end of March 2020, New Zealand had approved packages of financial support to 12 Pacific island countries and provided medical equipment, including ventilators and isolation facilities.

The European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program and the Pacific Community signed an agreement in early 2021, seeking to strengthen the existing partnership to support health sector responses to COVID-19 across the Pacific. The aim is not simply to provide financial support, but to provide counseling and physical support to increase preparedness, build testing capacity, reduce the risk of spread, and create an effective response mechanism. The goals are long term to ensure sustainable, efficient and accessible health care in the Pacific Islands.

Moving forward

Together, these efforts will help health systems in the Pacific Islands respond adequately to cases of COVID-19. These efforts will also target the indirect effects of the pandemic on the treatment of other diseases.

– Lizzie Alexandre
Photo: Flickr

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