On a near perfect spring day, with the Moana Pasifika as a backdrop, the children of the atoll strum their ukulele and sang their hearts out to welcome the delegates to the Pasifika Medical Association Conference 2019.
The conference whose theme this year is The Rising Tide officially opened today (Tues 24 Sept, Niue Time) at the Scenic Matavai Resort.
The customary blessing was conducted by the Rev Nuka Tauevihi, Vice-President of the Ekalesia Kerisiano Niue Church. He chose for his short message a passage from 1 Corinthians where there is reference to treating our bodies as a temple and as such, Rev Nuka said, it should be treated with care.
Dr Colin Tukuitonga, major driving force in having the conference on Niue this year, took the floor briefly to welcome all delegates to his homeland and to introduce ‘one of my naughty classmates from primary school’. That classmate is the island’s Minister of Health Hon Billy Talagi. Dr Tukuitonga explained that the intention was for Premier Sir Toke Talagi to speak at the opening but because of ill health he was unable to attend.
In his address to a packed conference room, Minister Billy Talagi said that his classmate Dr Tukuitonga, even with his full engagement on the regional and international wider stages, has never forgotten his island when it comes to lending his assistance.
Minister Talagi began by inviting delegates to enjoy the tranquillity that comes from living in a small close-knit community.
“Niue is a place where you can relax and not worry about traffic jams. You only need to worry about the roosters waking you up early in the morning.”
Minister Talagi took the opportunity to speak directly to all Niuean visiting health professionals and told them that the island can do with their help – not in returning to the island to live and work but in offering their services for a week or two.
While Niue enjoys a very good health service, the Minister acknowledged that there are areas that continue to be of concern.
“Our NCD [non-communicable disease] rate continues to rise and in this day and age it is becoming harder to turn the tide because of our over indulgence with food. We are eating to die”.
The one area that Niue has had some success is tobacco control. The island has the lowest smoking rate in the whole region. In December 2018, the island’s law-makers passed tobacco control legislation. The immediate effect was to increase the cost for a standard packet of cigarettes from $13 to $35. “We’re going to do as much as we can for as long as we can to discourage our young people from taking up the habit”. When Minister Talagi announced the government’s intention of banning vaping [e-cigarettes] on the island, there was a noticeable gasp and applause from the gathering.
The honour of delivering the keynote address was given to Hon Henry Puna, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands. In an address that was informative and at times humorous, Hon Puna thanked the host country for the warmth of the welcome and gave an assurance that even though Niue was, at one time considered to be administratively part of the Cook Islands, he had no intention reclaiming the island. He acknowledged the presence of the young students by telling delegates that…”there is nothing sweeter than to hear the voices of children in song. Fakaaue lahi children, you have done Niue proud”.
This is not the Hon Puna’s first visit to Niue. He recalled that he first visited the island some 50-odd years ago when the NZ government ship Moana Roa was servicing the two realm countries of Niue and the Cook Islands. He recalled spending the day with the family of Arumaki Strickland, who had migrated from Aitutaki shortly after World War 2.
Turning to the more serious business at hand, Prime Minister Puna focused his attention on the effects of climate change on health. He explained that at the recent Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu he was able to push for health to be included as a standing item for future meetings. He had turned down an invitation from the UN Secretary-General so that he can attend the PMA Conference and to speak directly to some of the region’s best qualified health professionals.
The Prime Minister referred to a recent presentation by a young Cook Island/Samoa medical student who used the Lord’s Prayer as means of communicating his concern over climate change. His prayer according to Mr Puna captured the gravity and desperation over climate change. His iteration of the Lord’s Prayer began thus:
“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, climate change may come but your will, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The prayer goes on with a plea, in essence, to safeguard God’s gifts of the land and of the sea to the people of Moana Pasifika.
Mr Puna told delegates that climate change “affects our land masses…it has a bearing on our food security, both on land and in the sea…it undermines the determinants of health. It influences the way we live and ultimately our culture and our future”.
He gave practical examples where climate change has had an effect on the region. “Half of the region,” he said, “has no access to clean water. [It] has put more pressure on the water supply with salt water intruding into fresh water lens.” In high islands with surface running water, there is the risk of flooding and with it comes the risk of water borne illnesses. An increase in air and water temperature affects the entire food chain from primary production to the markets.
When it comes to NCDs, Prime Minister Puna said that the region is known as the NCD capital of the world; it is now the main cause of death with the numbers increasing each year. Island economies he said are struggling to meet the cost.
The anxiety created by the threat of inundation from rising sea levels is beginning to take its toll on the mental health of those being threatened.
At the beginning of his address Mr Puna made a special request to all delegates.
“When you finish your conference, we [politicians] would appreciate some guidance from you as to how we can collaboratively deal with the NCD crisis in our region. We politicians think we know everything, but the truth is we know nothing. So as health professionals we would really appreciate some guidance from you as to the issues we need to get our heads around and more importantly how we can, together, face the challenges.“
Judging by the reaction in the packed conference room, Prime Minister Puna can expect to receive the best possible guidance from some of the region’s most capable health professionals.
The conference ends on Thursday with a reception at Hakupu before delegates depart this coming Friday.