Six adults and two children from Vanuatu are making good recoveries after life-saving heart surgeries in Auckland last week, thanks to a medical treatment scheme (MTS) administered by Health Specialists Ltd and funded by the New Zealand Aid programme.
Each year, around 150 people from Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Kiribati are selected to benefit from the MTS which provides a variety of surgeries and treatments not available in their home countries.
On arrival in Auckland, children (accompanied by a parent) are usually cared for at Starship Children’s Hospital while adults stay at Mercy Ascot Hospital, Epsom.
Dr Griffith Harrison, a Vanuatu-based physician who often travels with patients to New Zealand for their treatment and post-care, explains the background to these patients’ circumstances:
“Cardiac conditions have, fortunately, recently been added to the list of illnesses the MTS will consider treating. The two children here this month have congenital heart problems, and while the six adult patients seem young to have heart problems (the current group aged 22 - 40), they require these surgeries as a result of untreated rheumatic fever they contracted as children.
“Some patients are here for their second surgeries, since certain replacement valves don’t last more than ten years. The effects of rheumatic fever puts a severe strain on the heart; it’s clear to me that we need to focus on prevention and early antibiotic treatment,” he said. Dr Harrison has also been a beneficiary of the MTS but as a doctor, not a patient, when he received 12 months training in cardiology in Auckland on a fellowship.
Aged 25 years, Marvin Mailalong (pictured here with Dr Harrison), has undergone his second heart valve replacement, having been operated on in New Zealand as a ten year old, and again last week.
Raised in Papua New Guinea, Marvin said he often presented with shortness of breath and sore joints as a child; common symptoms of rheumatic fever. His first heart surgery provided a replacement tissue valve (Pacific conditions not always suited to the fitting of metal valves), and he recovered well enough to play soccer and enjoy a fairly normal life, recently being employed by the Vanuatu government in the IT sector. However, during a routine check-up in 2011 a second valve problem was detected and Marvin was given the opportunity for another life saving surgery in Auckland.
“Not many people get two surgeries paid for. I am really grateful for the opportunity to travel to New Zealand for the procedure,” Marvin said.
The main goal of the New Zealand Medical Treatment Scheme is that the citizens of Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu are healthy and productive. Criteria for selecting patients for surgery is based on clinical evidence and advice, and must include a likelihood of improved quality of life for the patient for at least five years following treatment.
The scheme operates within the wider context of the New Zealand Aid programme’s Health Policy and Strategy which recognises the interrelationship between poverty and ill-health, and posits that good health contributes to sustainable economic development.
Debbie Sorensen, Programme Director at Health Services Ltd says, "the programme provides the opportunity for people to access treatment services in New Zealand, Australia and Fiji and return home to ably participate in family, community and work life. This means for children they are able to continue to complete their education. For adults it means being able to go back to work or study and for women with familes, being able to look after their children and family. There is nothing better than seeing a seriously ill patient access treatment and return home happy and healthy.”
In the first nine months of the financial year (1 July 2011 – 31 March 2012) across Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga and Kiribati, 141 patients were referred under MTS scheme, 48 have completed treatment, and 17 are currently receiving treatment. In total this year 24 cardiac surgery patients will be treated, of which 10 are children.