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Samoan doctors provide essential volunteer support

The Samoan Doctors Worldwide Volunteers initiator-coordinators (from left to right): Faumuina Associate Professor Dr Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Dr Debbie Ryan and Leota Dr Lisi Petaia. Photo: supplied

Doctors of Samoan ethnicity working in New Zealand and Australia provided much-needed relief for both medics and patients when they volunteered during Samoa’s measles epidemic.

Thirty-nine medical doctors travelled to the Pacific Island country between December 2019 and late March this year, in a collaboration between the University of Otago and the Ministry of Health in Samoa.

“It was just such a great feeling to be able to provide this support,” says Frances Brebner, the University Pacific Regional Coordinator at the Division of Health Sciences, Office of the Associate Dean (Pacific).

As the year ends, she reflects on how they were able to help.

By January 6, 2020, more than 5700 people in Samoa had contracted the infectious disease and 83 had died, with most of these deaths being of children aged four years and under.

As the number of cases and measles-related deaths rapidly increased, the Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, asked Samoan doctors living overseas to return to assist.

The doctors in the hospitals were fatigued,” Frances says.


“They needed support across the hospital.”

Formation of volunteer network

In response to the Prime Minister’s request, three Samoan doctors in New Zealand developed a plan and the Samoan Doctors Worldwide Volunteers was formed.

Those three are the University Division of Health Sciences Associate Dean (Pacific), Faumuina Associate Professor Dr Fa’afetai Sopoaga; Waitematā District Health Board psychiatrist, Leota Dr Lisi Petaia, and the Principal of Pacific Perspectives, Dr Debbie Ryan.

As part of the collaboration, Frances travelled to Samoa to aid coordination and communication. She is Samoan and has years of experience working in its Ministry of Health.

In Samoa, the doctors from New Zealand and Australia worked in their specialities, covering a range of areas including surgery, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, public health, general practice, intensive care and psychiatry.

The visitors provided support so their local colleagues could take a much-needed break or maintain ongoing work.

The volunteer medics were either Samoan or had Samoan parents or grandparents, and some could speak Samoan.

“We saw that the doctors were able to hit the ground running…arriving and going in to provide the support and service and just be a part of the medical team,” Frances says.

Most of the New Zealand and Australian contingent had graduated from the University of Otago and some from the University of Auckland.

Two of the New Zealand-Australian team, Dr Sarah-Jane Langton (back row, second from left) and Team Leader, Dr Penina Pereira (front, first left), with local Acute Primary Care staff at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital in Motootua, Samoa. Photo: supplied

Frances says it was heartening to see those on the teams return to help Samoa and their colleagues at a time of great need. This experience also forged closer links between these medics and their colleagues in Samoa.

According to a World Health Organisation report in early March, the island nation was on the cusp of declaring the end of the outbreak, having had 46 days since the last infectious period of measles and no new cases or related deaths.

The volunteer doctors’ actions aren’t the only ones bringing hope.

Donation of medical equipment and supplies

With the help of various New Zealand organisations, the University has donated medical supplies and equipment, hospital beds, dental chairs/units and other items to Pacific Island nations.

Equipment and supplies are needed in hospitals as well as in universities for teaching purposes, Frances says.

Final-year Otago medical students can undertake their electives in the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga and Niue. From 2016 to 2019, 190 trainee interns have done this.

“These opportunities continue to strengthen medical students’ understanding of Pacific Island cultures as well as the cultural diversity of the people in the Pacific Islands,” she says.

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For further information:

Contact if your organisation would like to donate medical items for the Pacific

About how the New Zealand Red Cross helped in Samoa


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