Old, new ailments trouble Micronesia
The introduction of a Western diet has begun to erode the health of Micronesians, many of whom also suffer from such exotic tropical diseases as elephantiasis, a swelling of the arms and legs, visiting Hawaii physicians report.
Aloha Medical Mission volunteers recently treated Micronesians on Chuuk (Truk), Yap and other islands so remote that ships and aircraft visit only every few months.
The "groundbreaking" mission, which coincided with a recent visit by the voyaging canoe Hokule'a, was so successful that the volunteers are interested in returning, said Dr. Vernon Ansdell, who led a group of seven.
Dr. Lisa Grininger, general surgeon, led three other medical volunteers on a mission to Pohnpei. "The main purpose was to establish a relationship for things we might be able to provide in the future," she said.
The mission was a joint venture by the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Aloha Medical Mission to share culture with the Micronesians and contribute to their health.
"We were there when the Hokule'a arrived, and we got to participate in that," Grininger said. "It was really amazing."
"I was lucky enough to sail on Hokule'a from Yap to Palau," said Ansdell.
A veteran Aloha Medical Mission volunteer, Ansdell said his team went to outlying islands of Yap to run clinics and do health assessments, screening and treatments.
They treated all 200 people on one island for filariasis, an infection known as elephantiasis, caused by a small parasitic worm spread by mosquitoes. It blocks lymphatic channels, causing swollen arms and legs.
Ansdell, a specialist in internal and tropical medicine, said treatment is given to people on the outlying islands once a year and, if done for five to six years, can eradicate the infection.
Treating an entire island population took "a bit of organizing," he said.
Ansdell said his group traveled by boat and light airplane. "One of the islands we went to has a ship that goes out every couple months and an airplane that comes out three to four times a year. It's pretty remote."
The islands are basically self-supporting, fishing and growing their own crops, he said. The health of the people is "actually quite good," but that is changing, he added.
"One of the problems in the whole of Micronesia, because of a Western diet introduced, is an epidemic of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity."
The people are eating rice and canned goods rather than growing their own foods, eating vegetables and fishing, he said. "We did a little bit of education, but that's a huge job."
The volunteers have identified one island in Yap where they would like to develop an ongoing relationship, Ansdell said. A dispensary on the island was destroyed by a typhoon a few years ago, and an Oceania Community Health Group is working to rebuild it, he said.
The Hawaii group wants to provide medical support and maybe send a medical team there once a year, he said.
The goal is to develop an ongoing relationship, which was done in Bangladesh "with great success," he said. But it requires volunteers and money, and "we don't want to stretch the organization too thin," he said.
Resources are limited on Pohnpei, but people on the main island have access to a regional clinic, Grininger said.
The volunteers visited hospitals and dispensaries and met with physicians and health workers. They saw patients and provided medicines and supplies to the public health clinic, she said.
One of the main needs is for specialists, particularly a urologist and a pathologist, Grininger said. Specimens must be sent to Honolulu for analysis, sometimes taking four weeks to get back results.
"This is helpful in planning what we might be able to do in the future," Grininger said, adding that it would also be beneficial to go to more remote islands of Pohnpei that have less access to health care.
One of the problems with such missions is the cost to volunteers, Ansdell noted. Aloha Medical Mission volunteers pay all their own expenses, including transportation.
"To fly into Manila and do a clinic is a lot cheaper than trying to get somewhere like Yap and then pay to get to an outlying island," he pointed out. "It was an extra burden for the volunteers, but people realized it was worth it and they just did it."