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Solomons - Is It Time To Push The Panic Button?

Is It Time To Push The Panic Button?

John Roughan - Honiara


Solomon Islands leaders normally wait until the last minute before 'leaping' to action. This is especially true when it comes to preparing for major national disasters. Recall the Level 5 cyclone which roared through Tikopia a few years back. A few New Zealand pilots and some other countries nationals knew more about what was happening to our people on Tikopia than our leaders did. Almost a week went by before government leaders knew whether any one on Tikopia was still alive or not? National response to that disaster, unfortunately, was pityingly late and sparse.

Of course cyclone preparation is a long term sort of thing and over the years, thank goodness, we've built up expertise. We have become sort of ready for them. But there are two disasters waiting to hit us at this very moment and we continue to be woefully unprepared. There is modest preparation in place, for instance, for the AIDS/HIV epidemic but hardly anything for the Avian Flu bug. This last mentioned disaster deeply worries the rest of the world but we hardly seem concerned. Countries in our region are putting their people on disaster alert in case the Avian Flu hits them. They take the threat quite seriously. While our AIDS/HIV preparation is spotty at best, national preparation for Avian Flu hasn't rated a mention in the current seating of parliament.

This current Avian Flu, probably began in China or another part of Southeast Asia, is a serious disaster waiting to happen. Some rate its destructive power as bad as an atomic attack. This sickness is much more deadly than a serious cold, a blocked nose or cough and sneezing bouts. The world has never experienced this kind of flu before and it's waiting in the wings to happen. More than half the people who contracted
Avian Flu in Southeast Asia over the past two years died and the rest needed days of hospital care.

Nations across the globe--China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, etc. to stop the flu bug in its tracks from taking hold of their people, are slaughtering tens of thousands of chickens, ducks and other bird species. National governments greatly fear that this deadly flu could wipe out millions of their people, if they don't do some seriously radical destruction of their bird populations. The last time the world witnessed so dangerous a flu was in 1918 when it killed millions in a few months. Doctors, scientists and politicians are now fearful that this newest Avian Flu which now attacks people's poultry might leap into human beings. Once that happens, the world is looking at massive death rates the like it has never seen.

Last week, fortunately, the Minister of Finance informed parliament members that he had wisely salted away about $40 million, earmarking funds for a possible disaster emergency. No, he never mentioned Avian Flu, but I'm sure that thought wasn't far from his mind. Hopefully not a penny will be used to fight the Avian Flu. However, if needed, at least, we have stored up funds to jump start a response to fight this disease if it ever did hit our shores.

But money alone, as necessary and needed, is simply not enough. Serious health planning measures including public awareness campaigns are a necessary first step to prepare people about this sickness. Secondly, medical plans--pre-ordering vital medicines, hospital preparation and staff training--should be already well known to our medical people.

In many other nations, the Avian Flu seems to infect local flocks of chickens and ducks through wild bird passage. The Solomons does not lie in the path of big flocks of migratory birds which yearly make their continental-spanning journeys. Some bird spices cross Southeast Asia to travel to the warmer climates of Indonesia, Australia, etc. These birds could infect local birds with the sickness. But this sickness, if it did jump into humans, could come to us in other ways.

Back in the early 1960s, for instance, a Solomons protectorate High Commissioner and his party paid a visit to Hong Kong before returning to the Solomons. In their visit, didn't one of them pick up another flu bug. He brought it back with him on his returning here. Within a few weeks, that flu infected a number of our people. Fortunately, although serious, did not kill anyone but it did show how quickly the flu could travel around Solomon Islands.

Whether we should push the panic button is an open question. But certainly more must be done to alert out people and get in place plans to care for them just in case. That's the least that government owes its citizens.


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