Solomon Islands

Red Cross tackles ongoing needs in Solomon Islands

By Laurelle Keough, Australian Red Cross

A year ago, on 2 April 2007, a tsunami struck the island of Gizo, in the Solomon Islands. It killed 52 people and left more than 9,000 homeless.

The Solomon Islands Red Cross, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, provided food and emergency assistance to more than 1,800 families immediately following the disaster.

Since then, Red Cross efforts have focused on building more than 1,500 houses, and providing clean water and proper sanitation.

News of the tsunami has disappeared from the headlines. Meanwhile, another 'everyday' emergency in the Solomon Islands has become a silent epidemic. Its effect on the population is even more debilitating and widespread than that of the one-off natural disaster.

'I get malaria about six times a year,' says 31-year-old Matthew Aurodo.

He and his wife, Miriam, have three children. Like other villagers scattered throughout the lush, mountainous Solomon Islands, the couple have a food garden, and Matthew also fishes for their daily supper.

They live in the remote North Malaita village of Taba'a, a pretty collection of leaf-houses accessible by a dirt road that occasionally disappears under water and is flanked by a mixture of rainforest, coconut trees and mangroves.

The Solomon Islands, an archipelago of 992 islands just a three-hour flight north-east of Brisbane, has one of the highest rates of malaria outside Africa, and the highest in the Pacific.

'Malaria causes headaches, fever, dizziness,' Matthew said. 'Malaria and diarrhoea are the biggest problems in the village. We have no sanitation, no toilets, and (the entire village population) have all had malaria.'

Anyone who visits the Solomon Islands is likely to hear the refrain: 'Malaria, it's our disease.'

'Solomon Islanders treat malaria as I would treat a cold,' said Donna Webb, Australian Red Cross programme officer for the Pacific. 'They get sick, get over it, and then months or even weeks later, get sick again.'

In a subsistence lifestyle, where a day's work means a day's food, the consequences are huge.

It wasn't always like this. Before 1998, the national strategy for the control of malaria had been successful - with a rate of around 75 cases per 1,000.

However, violent civil unrest between the populations of Guadalcanal and Malaita provinces devastated the country. Along with near-economic collapse, social and health care services - in particular in the affected communities - were decimated.

In Guadalcanal's Weather Coast region, many qualified health personnel fled the area and clinics were looted, resulting in poorly equipped and staffed rural health centres.

The Australian-led peacekeeping force, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), arrived in 2003, and has overseen a slow return to order.

However, access to good health services remains limited for much of the population.

The particularly high rate of malaria was one of the reasons why Matthew Aurodo's village of Taba'a was one of the villages chosen for the Red Cross Health Awareness Project (HAP), launched in 2005.

The community-based project is run in partnership with the Ministry of Health, and is supported by AusAID through the Australian Red Cross.

The project aims to provide communities with the knowledge and skills to help them improve health and hygiene practices. This can be anything from covering food, to draining stagnant pools of water.

This can lower the spread of malaria, diarrhoea, skin infections and other diseases.

A Solomon Islands Red Cross health promotion officer, dedicated Red Cross volunteers and a Ministry of Health officer run the programme in villages in North Malaita and the Weather Coast.

The activities are designed to appeal to all members of the village, young and old, men and women. The genders are separated, and the activities are picture-based so as not to exclude those who cannot read.

Taba'a village chief George Gao said that since the launch of the project, people were starting to make better health choices, and learning how to keep a healthy environment.

'Since the HAP training, people understand how to look after themselves and their families, which makes for a healthy community,' he said.

'It's good to have the Red Cross in the community. We've had a lot of problems, including health problems we've had to face, and we are getting through that. The Red Cross helps us in our life. We appreciate what the Red Cross has done for us.'