Interview: Health experts aim to bring "forgotten" Pacific to world attention

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Cancer, pesticides and healthcare training - international help in these fields could save lives in a diplomatically "forgotten" region of the world, says an organizer of a seminar in New Zealand next week.

The one-day seminar, organized by Massey University and the Dutch embassy, aims to raise awareness among the world's diplomats of the major health issues facing the Pacific island nations in Wellington on Nov. 11.

The organizers could have picked the region's biggest problem - climate change - but they decided to focus on the priority problems that could be solved "in a matter of years rather that decades," director of Massey's Centre for Public Health Research Professor Jeroen Douwes told Xinhua.

"The problem is that a lot of the diplomats here in New Zealand do have some responsibility for the Pacific, but they often haven't got a sufficient understanding of the problems that are present there," Douwes said in an interview Thursday.

"The Pacific seems to have been forgotten to some degree, so getting it on the agenda, getting people to realize that there's a large group of islands where there are some major issues that need some support."

On the three issues to be addressed at the seminar - cancer rates, pesticide use, and training and education - Pacific island nations lacked the information and the ability to offset their worst effects.

The use of pesticides, which can severely reduce neuropsychological development among children exposed to their chemicals, required urgent attention.

"We do know from case studies - for instance in lagoons in Tonga - that there are elevated levels of pesticides that have been measured," said Douwes.

"We also know the ecology around those lagoons has been deteriorating over time and one of the potential causes is pesticide exposure - there are other exposures as well including heavy metals," he said.

"What we don't know is how much exposure people have, children around those areas and that's something we need to find out."

Some of the pesticides used in the Pacific were banned in Western countries.

"We also know that people who are using the pesticides are often not able to read the safety labels -- they may not necessarily use it according to the manufacturer's instructions which poses all sorts of risks," said Douwes.

The Pacific was also lacking information about cancer mortality and incidents because many nations had no systematic screening programs, such as those for cervical and breast cancer in developed nations, and they lacked cancer registries to track trends in the disease.

"We do know that people eventually develop those diseases, but because there's no screening they get picked up at a much later stage, when it may be too late for effective treatment," he said.

Douwes said he hoped the seminar would lead to a wider call to action for the international community to help.

"What we hope is that those diplomats will go back to their respective governments and then discuss the possibilities of making some funding available to make improvements in those areas," he said.

"It could be in the form of subsidizing people from the islands to participate in training for instance in New Zealand, Australia or other places, but it could also mean they could fund potentially some projects where a cancer registry could be set up - and it's not just setting up the registry, it's also training the people to then maintain it and continue to do it after the experts have left."

International cooperation could lead to permanent improvements in Pacific healthcare, Douwes said. Endit

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