Environmental Health in the South Pacific

By Smith, Christopher T. | Journal of Environmental Health, December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Environmental Health in the South Pacific


Smith, Christopher T., Journal of Environmental Health


Sometimes in a career, a "once in a lifetime opportunity" presents itself, an opportunity that will afford you an experience unlike any you have known. My once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself in the form of Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP 09). The original environmental health officer (EHO) scheduled to deploy on this mission had to cancel two weeks prior to deployment and a call was put out to EHOs in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) asking for a volunteer. Additionally, the original mission had to be scaled down due to an outbreak of H1N1 on the ship that was to be used. A smaller ship, the dry cargo ship U.S. Navy Ship (USNS) Richard E. Byrd, was to be used. She was a much smaller ship, which meant less staff, less room for supplies, closer quarters, and a condensed, more focused mission had to be put together at the last minute. The ship was built in 2007 and was staffed and operated by U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command, part of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force.

After some deliberations with my supervisor and calendar, I jumped at the chance to go. The chance to fly halfway around the world, to get out from behind a desk for a month, and to practice grassroots environmental health in a far-off land was intriguing and exciting to me. It was an opportunity and I simply couldn't pass it up.

Pacific Partnership is the U.S. Navy's humanitarian and civic assistance mission conducted with partner nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other U.S. government agencies to execute a variety of health care programs. Originally conceived following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, this now-annual event targets at need countries from around the world. PP 09 visited the Oceanic nations of Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. In support of U.S. government diplomacy initiatives, the USPHS Commissioned Corps participated with the U.S. Navy, other Department of Defense service partners, and NGOs on missions both aboard and off ship. Missions were designed to project health diplomacy, increase the operation capacity of U.S. personnel to deliver humanitarian assistance, provide direct care to indigenous peoples, conduct public health infrastructure assessments and repairs, and provide health care training and subject-matter expert exchanges to and with indigenous health workers.

Having deployed several times in response to natural disasters and for national interest events such as the presidential inauguration with the Office of Force Readiness and Deployment, I thought I had an idea of what to expect. The usual major deployments mostly happen after a catastrophic event, recently in the form of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita striking the Gulf Coast of the U.S. Having had the opportunity to be able to directly help people after the hurricanes of 2005, I felt confident that I knew what to expect. I didn't realize that I was blindly jumping at an opportunity that turned out to be a true character and skill-set builder. As far as logistics and character building, upon arrival I lost my luggage to its own New Zealand adventure.

Since this was a "humanitarian public health mission," however, the aspects of environmental health would be a little different and more challenging. It would be more remote and have its own logistical issues and cultural barriers. I was traveling to Samoa and Tonga located in the South Pacific, not the usual places where I have practiced environmental health, and a long way from my comfort zone. I might as well just go ahead and accept the fact that nothing I had experienced up until this point could prepare me for what to expect. It was at that moment that I decided to "go with the flow" and have fun during this adventure. I used it as a time to reflect on and enhance my own environmental health skills.

After flying to Apia, Samoa, I met the USNS Richard E. Byrd. I could see her from the shore.

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