DUBRAVKA VOLODER, JOURNALIST: Assistant Minister, you are attending the Health Ministers Meeting in Tonga. What are Pacific countries telling you, is their priority health concern?
EMMA MCBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm so pleased to be able to join the 15th Pacific Health Ministers Meeting in Tonga on behalf of the Australian Government. It's so important in terms of our ongoing engagement and strong collaboration with Pacific Island countries. And there's been a few focuses, or particular focuses, of this conference, for example human resources. Health workforce is something that is a top priority for all Pacific Island countries and something that has been exacerbated through the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it's also been really encouraging to hear how individual Pacific Island countries are facing those challenges and some of the pockets of success. Another big focus has been non-communicable diseases, and that particular disease burden which we feel in Australia as well, and some of the local initiatives and some of the really strong solutions that are being used to approach non-communicable diseases. Another particular focus has been health system resilience. COVID-19 exposed the underlying fragilities in many Pacific sIland countries and in Australia's health systems and health workforce. It's been, of course, a strong priority, including climate change and I'm pleased to be here as part of a new Australian Government, which has a very strong focus on, and is developing, our first climate change in health strategy.
VOLODER: The Pacific region, as you just said, is facing an epidemic, if you want to call it like that of non-communicable diseases, diabetes and obesity are a major problem. How can Australia help with this problem?
MCBRIDE: It's something that Australia is doing already. It's a common problem that that we share. I've had the chance to visit two health-promoting schools, whilst I've been here in Tonga, and have just returned from the Beulah Adventist Primary School. They, through Tonga Health, are being supported by the Australian Government and to see the real practical difference that these programs are making within local schools, to see a school playground that is supported by the Australian Government, vegetable gardens which are being used in teaching children about healthy eating and nutrition, and those children then taking that back to their families at home. So, Australia does have a shared interest in reducing the burden of non-communicable diseases and it's something that is a strong focus of ours, and many, or all of the Pacific Island countries, and we are already working in collaboration with them through this program, and many others have focused on reducing this burden of disease.
VOLODER: In places like Tonga, where you are currently and Fiji, methamphetamine and other drugs are a growing problem and so in the health sphere, what could be done to help?
MCBRIDE: Addiction and dependency are problems that are faced by many people, in most countries and I think the first thing is treating them as a health issue and having a health response. That's something that we've made progress towards in Australia and it's something that I know from the interventions that I've heard from Pacific Island countries, that's the sort of approach they are adopting and is something that I think is the most effective response. Treating addiction and dependency as health issues or health conditions, and then responding through education, early intervention, and the right kind of treatment and support when people need that care.
VOLODER: Now, one of your responsibilities is mental health, in the Pacific this is often an under-resourced space and countries struggle to deal with it. What can and should Australia do in this space?
MCBRIDE: We know that some of this burden of disease has been introduced through the impacts of climate change. We visited a part of Tonga yesterday that had been impacted by the tsunami and the volcano and hearing from a person who personally had experienced this and the distress that's impacted them and their family. It's something that Australia is working to build health system resilience will help to reduce that distress. That particularly is being felt by young people but also other people in the community and it is something that there are particular stigmas that persist in Pacific Island communities and in Australia.
I think that's something we are making progress towards but something that still needs to be addressed. First, the stigma of mental ill-health needs to be reduced, then people can then have the right kind of intervention and support. The hospital that I visited today, the Vaiola Hospital, does have a mental health inpatient unit and as a person with a background as a mental health worker, myself, it's really encouraging to see that sort of clinical support and care. But we need to really make sure that there's reduced stigma, the right kind of early intervention, and identification, and then the right clinical support, if it's needed.
VOLODER: While your meeting was on health, climate change is an overarching concern that also has health implications. How big? Or was climate change part of the discussions? And if so, how, you know how, how big was it?
MCBRIDE: Climate change was probably one of the most significant focuses of the discussions over the last three days, particularly through the focus on strengthening health system resilience. Many Pacific Island countries spoke about the significant impact of climate change, the increasing severity and frequency of natural disasters, including tsunamis, and the real impact that is having on the health and wellbeing of their communities.
Being part of a new Australian Government, I was very pleased to reaffirm Australia's strong position on action on climate change and taking responsibility as a development partner in the Pacific region. And that was very much welcomed by the other delegates from the Pacific Island countries, to see that shift from the new Australian Government and that real strong emphasis that we're placing on it domestically, but also taking our responsibility seriously within the region.
VOLODER: You're also supporting a digital transformation in the health sector. What benefits would this have for Pacific nations whose populations often live in remote, dispersed communities, and whose health sector is often struggling to make do?
MCBRIDE: I was very pleased, on behalf of the Australian Government, and with my colleague, the Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, to be able to support this announcement of the Pacific Health Information Support Hub. This is part of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the Partnerships for a Healthy Region Initiative. This initiative overall, is investing $620 million over five years in high quality health programs across the Pacific and Southeast Asia, the particular program that I was able to announce at the Pacific Health Ministers Meeting yesterday is of this Pacific Health Information Support Hub.
We know that especially through the pandemic, that the underlying vulnerability of health systems and of health data was exposed. And the risk of, and safeguards required, to be able to accurately capture, store, and analyse this data. What we know that this will prove would be significant benefits through the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to be able to provide more robust data in real time, to be able to inform discussions and policy decisions on how health funding is directed, and for Pacific Island countries to be able to focus on their own particular priorities in being able to strengthen this infrastructure as part of this digital health transformation. In terms of countries being much more prepared, or ready, for future pandemics or infectious disease outbreaks that they may face. I was very pleased on behalf of the Australian Government to be able to announce this strong investment and this will be done in collaboration, because we know that the best solutions are local solutions and really to build the capacity of the Pacific Island countries and to strengthen our collaboration with them.
VOLODER: And when we talk about digital transformation, one issue that keeps cropping up in the Pacific is limited connectivity, which has improved in recent years, but internet and mobile networks have yet to reach everyone. To overcome this divide are we talking about satellite internet, like StarLink or other options?
MCBRIDE: Listening to the interventions from the delegates from the Pacific Island countries yesterday, there are a range of different responses that different Pacific Island countries have taken. Some were using VSAT and other satellite technology. For some of them, it was very new, but it's something that is front of mind for all of the Pacific Island country's health ministers, but also a strong point that came out was the interoperability, and that it needed to be across finance, across health, across education. For some of these countries, it's very much emerging technology, for others, it's a bit more mature. But all of them agreed that it was something that was such a strong priority to be able to gather data, to be able to safely store that data, so that patients have confidence in the security of their health information and for clinicians to be able to have that data at their fingertips when they're making decisions about health interventions. But also at a population level, so that countries can be much better informed by much more reliable data about where the best investment will go or need to be directed in order to be able to boost the health of the population overall.
VOLODER: Thank you so much for your time today.
MCBRIDE: It's been really good to be with you.