By Jo Galer
Team Leader media Engagement, University of Otago,
The University of Otago has a long term commitment and relationship with the people of Samoa through our 2004 Memorandum of Understanding with the National University of Samoa and very good ongoing working relationships with the Samoa Ministry of Health.
Faumuina Associate Professor Faafetai Sopoaga, Associate Dean (Pacific) Health Sciences, was in Samoa for University work last month, when the Hon. Tuilaepa Dr. Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, Prime Minister of the Independent State of Samoa put out a call for all Samoan health professionals to assist Samoa at this time of national emergency related to the measles epidemic.
Returning to Dunedin, Associate Professor Sopoaga worked together with Leota Dr Lisi Petaia (President, Pacific Islands Mental Health Professionals Association NZ) and others to lead the mobilisation of the Samoan Doctors Worldwide volunteer service, deploying 40 Samoan doctors for 14 weeks, working about two weeks at a time, from 23 December to 31 March 2020.
Dr Petaia is Samoa’s first and sole psychiatrist, and has been involved in supporting mental health clinicians in Samoa over many years. Dr Petaia and Fuimaono Karl Pulotu Endemann (veteran mental health consultant) led the Samoa medical mental health response to the Tsunami in 2009.
Associate Professor Sopoaga is a primary care and public health physician and involved in supporting the development of Samoa’s own School of Medicine, National University of Samoa.
Associate Professor Sopoaga says: “In addition to responding to the measles epidemic, there are the usual medical and surgical illnesses that need attending to. Our Samoan volunteer medical doctors will be working in different areas ranging from surgical, medical, and general practice work.”
“Our coordinating doctors are fluent speakers of the Samoan language and understand the local culture which enables the smooth transition of support. We are working closely with Samoa’s Ministry of Health and our colleagues in the Samoan Medical Association,”, Dr Petaia says.
She believes there is a need for mental health and wellbeing support at a later stage.
“For now, the priority is for acute care and for clinicians from outside Samoa to relieve their local colleagues so they can rest and be with their family and loved ones around the Christmas period,” she says.
Of the 40 Samoan doctors who have volunteered from New Zealand and Australia for the first deployment, at least half were trained at the University of Otago, and five of the seven teams will be led by Otago medical graduates. The expertise of the teams covers a range of areas including surgery, medicine, paediatrics, public health, general practice and intensive care.
University of Otago Pacific Regional Coordinator Frances Brebner worked previously as the Registrar for the Samoa Ministry of Health, and is now in Samoa to support the deployment.
“Frances has been extremely helpful in navigating the way forward. Her connections and understanding of local processes is vital considering the complexity of the situation,” Dr Petaia says.
The Office of the Associate Dean (Pacific), Health Sciences is the Secretariat for the mobilisation of support. The University has offered the use of the Otago House, located at the National University of Samoa campus, for accommodation and as the local coordination hub for the period of deployment in Samoa.
“We are very grateful for the support of Otago’s Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor External Engagement and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Health Sciences, to enable us to do what we can,” Associate Professor Sopoaga says.
While the University is providing accommodation, some medical volunteers have offered to fund their own travels. There are 130 New Zealand- registered doctors of Samoan descent, and an increasing number registering interest from Australia. Samoan nurses and mental health professionals are also engaging to explore processes for mobilisation.
“Our engagement will be for an extended period due to the nature of the situation. We are in this for long haul. These are our families who are affected,” Dr Petaia says.
There is heartfelt support also from non-Samoan colleagues in New Zealand and Australia, and in particular our former Pacific Islands Health Professional Students Association (PIHPSA) students – many of whom are now senior clinicians.
“We are all in this together,” Associate Professor Sopoaga says.
“There are also many stakeholders who wish to support these and other efforts. We will all be working together to mobilise a coordinated approach to maximise our collective efforts.”