PACAF flies humanitarian to Fiji Islands

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- As a country composed of more than 300 islands, 100 of which are inhabited, Fiji’s rapid population growth is stretching health care efforts very thin.

In an effort to help bolster Fiji’s health care capabilities, Airmen from Pacific Air Forces International Health Affairs visited the Republic of the Fiji Islands from June 14 to July 2 on a humanitarian mission.

The PACAF medical team went to train the Fijian military in combat lifesaving skills, help local health care facilities formulate plans for effective and sustainable intervention and promotion programs, and provide health promotion and primary care services in the field to communities identified by Fiji’s Ministry of Health as priority underserved areas.

According to the International Health Programs Office mission report, even with the small size of Fiji’s military, they still maintain a high operations tempo, supplying company-sized contingents of soldiers and sailors for UN commitments in the Sinai, Lebanon and UNAMI in Iraq.

Fiji’s military medical team consists of 5 doctors--3 active duty, 2 civilian, 2 dentists, a pharmacist and 10 nurses with a small supporting cadre of allied health care professionals--Xray, lab and pharmacy technicians, which are duties largely performed by medics. Fiji typically deploys with a small Level 1 facility supporting its contingent for sick call and minor injuries, relying on coalition medical support assets for higher levels of care. At the time of the mission, 3 of 5 doctors were deployed overseas.

“It had been 10 yrs since the Republic of Fiji Military Forces received any Combat Medicine training, said Capt. Kari Stone, International Health Specialist. “We hope to assist them to field a healthy fighting force and be able to treat their injured friends on the battle field.”

Among the many topics covered by the PACAF medical team with Fijian military medical personnel were splinting, patient transport, dental trauma, and basic life support.

“The U.S. and Fijian military relationship is very good,” said Lt. Col. Mylene Huynh, International Health Specialist and Fiji Mission Team Leader. “The very positive image of the U.S. military’s quick and effective humanitarian response to high profile natural disasters in the region such as the recent Asian Tsunami and South Asian earthquake, has been very widely recognized and appreciated throughout civilian communities.”

According to the IHPO mission report, a common theme with the civilian Fijian medical practice is the shortage of skilled personnel and equipment to accomplish its mission in providing low cost health care to the people of Fiji. Citizens are suffering from non-communicable diseases at an alarming rate. Fiji has focused on primary care, particularly maternal and child health, but curative health care services, including basic internal medicine care, are underdeveloped.

“Continued communication and information sharing will establish networks from both the military and civilian agencies involved in providing health care services,” said Capt. Stone. “It’s all about building partnerships from within the country and abroad.”

Fiji has recently developed a small network of private providers which continues to expand as the demand for services unavailable from the MOH continues to grow.

Attempts are being made by the Fijian MOH to monitor and analyze NCDs (non-communicable diseases). According to the IHPO mission report, a questionnaire known as “Mini-Steps” was used for the first time, and witnessed by the PACAF team, to address the growing burden of non-communicable disease. However, a principle barrier observed was a lack of trained personnel to analyze the data received and develop appropriate software, which makes it difficult for the MOH to evaluate its own programs.

The PACAF medical team hopes to return soon to build trust by organizing further hands-on training of medical personnel and sending provisions of essential equipment and supplies to grass roots communities.

They also hope to continue exploring further initiatives for military to military and military to civilian cooperation for capacity and institution building in the future.

According to Capt Stone, “Continued subject matter expert exchanges and train the trainer programs would greatly enhance capacity and institution building. The great thing about this particular mission is that we went from talking the talk to walking the walk together, side by side.”

The mission to Fiji was helpful for the PACAF team to observe and analyze ways to improve Fijian medical care as well as nurture the relationship between Fiji and the United States.

“Working with the Fijian military medical personnel was my favorite part of the trip, said Capt. Amanda Cuda, Family Practice Physician. “After working with them, I'd consider them friends, as well as colleagues. Their commitment to cooperate with the outreach mission was impressive. They gave sacrificially of their time and resources to take care of the population, and us. I would look forward to working with them again, whether in Fiji, Hawaii, or Iraq.”

According to Ambassador Larry Dinger, U.S. Embassy Suva, Fiji Islands, the PACAF team did much to generate awareness and develop a lasting relationship with Fiji.

“I was most impressed, and I am confident the expertise and good will generated by the mission will pay continuing benefits as we work with Fiji to counter terrorism, combat pandemics, participate in still more PKOs, and generally help make the Pacific region and the world a safer place.”