Sep 20, 2018 Last Updated 4:57 AM, Sep 13, 2018

Tax to turn tide

TAXES and tariffs may be the Pacific’s best bet in fighting the growing non communicable disease epidemic. Samoa has introduced tariffs of up to 300 per cent on fatty meat imports and could soon place similar restrictive fees on imported fizzy drinks in an effort to reduce its health bills.

Other countries have started to raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol – two of the major contributors to diabetes in the region. In June, regional health ministers committed to the introduction of national legislation to ensure all Pacific countries and territories meet or exceed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control taxation target and help achieve a Tobacco Free Pacific by 2025. That could see tariffs on cigarettes across the region rise gradually, making cigarettes unaffordable for the least wealthy.

“Whatever we decide to do in terms of addressing NCDs, funding is a very crucial factor,” Cook Islands Minister of Health, Justice and Parliamentary Services, Nandi Glassie, said. “Taxation on tobacco, sugary drinks and alcohol, for example, is one area, and in fact it’s being seen as a positive move so that each country can develop their own form of funding. But from the outset, this is not enough so we’re looking for more assistance from our key development partners.”

Pacific countries and territories at the inaugural Pacific Non-Communicable Tax to turn tide Ministers add to health funding Diseases (NCD) Summit in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in June expressed their support for a Pacific funding mechanism to better balance responses to the burden of NCDs in the region. For the time being, regional countries and territories have agreed to explore options to establish greater synergies between funding sources. 

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At CRISIS Point

NCD battle can be won: Clark

HELEN Clark has never shied away from a fight. As New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister she fought against the odds to lead the nation.Now she is fighting to become the first woman to he of the largest global organisation – the United Nations.

There will be challenges – some of them from very powerful political and industrial lobbies – in this battle but Clark has not and will not step down. So if this woman says that the Pacific can win the battle against Non-Communicable Disease, she knows it can be done and has a plan in place.

“The NCD crisis is surmountable and reversible,” Clark told regional leaders at the inaugural Pacific NCD Summit in Nuku’alofa, Tonga last month. “What we have to gain are not just longer lives and more sustainable economies. It is the enjoyment and pride we take in nurturing new generations to lead healthier lives and in celebrating unique cultures and environments.”

The response from delegates was immediate, warm and positive. Fijian Health Minister, Jone Usumate indicated that his government believed measures could be put in place to reverse NCD trends and ensure a healthier Pacific. “But we need to stop talking about the issue and do something practical to change the situation. 

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Is the health ministry capable?

A major dengue fever outbreak in Vanuatu, with several hundred cases recorded in Port Vila and Luganville, has opened serious allegations about the state of the Ministry of Health. The Vanuatu Ministry of Health is now spearheading a campaign to eradicate mosquito breeding sites around Port Vila and Luganville, plus educating people on how to protect themselves from contracting the virus. But there have been claims that the government health team was slow to react and get itself organised.

The outbreak, which began in early January, has seen more than 30 people a day presenting themselves at the hospitals and private clinics with symptoms of the untreatable virus. One the Ministry of Health’s early ‘initiatives’ was to hand out mosquito nets—a fine deterrent against malaria, but basically irrelevant against dengue which is carried by a day-time mosquito most dangerous around dawn and dusk. A spokesman said the problem has been exacerbated because of the four strains of dengue fever, the one behind the outbreak in the country’s two major towns has not been seen in Vanuatu for around 20 years— which has reduced the chances of potential immunity among the population.

The leader of the government’s anti-dengue campaign Dr Laurence Boe said they have mobilised the Ministry of Health and Vector Control and Environmental Health to do public awareness and education. “We have basically divided them into groups which are visiting different communities in Port Vila and Luganville,” he said. “And especially those areas where there are a number of cases and there are education and awareness campaigns advising the community on prevention and destroying the breeding sites.” Dr Boe said there have been recent outbreaks in Fiji, New Caledonia and other Pacific islands. And it is here that the criticism of the Ministry of Health kicks in, with claims the department should have been better prepared given recent outbreaks around the Pacific.

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A big worry for Pacific islanders

Forget weight gain—long-term spatial memory loss has now been linked to starch and sugar-laden diets as a warning to Pacific islanders over their lifestyle of high fat traditional foods. A gradual shift from age-old Pacific islands diets relying heavily on backyard-grown foods to imported sugar and refined carbohydrates-rich foods since the 1980s, has seen the region suffer severely with high world-beating obesity rates and incurrence of diabetes. A recent New Zealand study also established that a key cause to the problem is when imported refined and processed carbohydrates are added to the diet of islanders.

Changes in brain in just six days: A diet stacked with saturated fat and sugar could instigate immediate effect on the brain’s cognitive ability and cause memory loss, noted Margaret Morris, head of pharmacology at the University of the New South Wales in Sydney. The far-reaching research revealed that exposure to junk foods over just six days could reduce spatial recognition—or the ability to notice when an object has been moved to a new location. “We know obesity causes inflammation in the body, but we didn’t realise until recently that it causes changes in the brain,” said Morris. She asserted that the speed with which the deterioration occurred was alarming, with a spatial memory loss appearing long before any weight gain. “After consuming a high sugar and fat diet for one week, we found that the hippocampus, the brain structure which is critical for learning and memory, had increased inflammation,” Morris noted. In humans, spatial memory is essential in navigation and recalling where everyday use items like car keys and mobile phones are located.

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Alarming stats for islanders

It has been known for some time now that people of Pacific Islands origin living in New Zealand find themselves overrepresented in health-related statistics—particularly around lifestyle ailments. Three in every five Pacific Islanders is obese, three times more islanders have diabetes and markedly more Pacific people have oral and mental health issues than other groups. This is a major worry for New Zealand’s health authorities and while the concerned government ministries have continued information dissemination and awareness generation programmes across different media, there has not been a regular, periodic media vehicle to address Pacific health concerns aimed at the general Pacific Islands audience in the country.

A new quarterly magazine titled ‘Pacific Peoples Health’ launched in January 2014 plans to change that. Oceania Media, which has published the popular and successful six issues a year Spasifik magazine for a decade now, is the team behind this new, more specialised offering. Publisher and editor Innes Logan says there has been a growing demand for covering more health stories over the past few years. “I think there has been a general acceptance with the way we cover health stories—we don’t shirk from the stats but provide stories which our people engage in.

For Pacific people, the lack of engagement and access to the health system has been one of the barriers,” Logan told Islands Business. Planned as a quarterly, the magazine also has an online edition. Asked about the wisdom behind a conventional, paper-based magazine in the age of the tablet and smartphones, Logan said, “I believe print still has its value. People spend more time reading print rather than online where it’s easier to get sidetracked. It’s amazing how many people who have seen it online have requested a hard copy.”

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Guide to the 49th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting – Nauru 2018

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