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Chinese medical team aids cyclone-struck Vanuatu

By WANG XIAOYU | China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-01 08:33

Cardiologist Ye Huiming makes the rounds of the wards at Vila Central Hospital in Vanuatu in November 2022. [Photo/China Daily]

Days after two Category 4 cyclones struck Vanuatu in early March, power, water, communication and other vital infrastructure remain out of service in the small Pacific island nation.

With flashlights and by the glow of phone screens in otherwise pitch-black rooms, Chinese medical aid workers stationed in Vanuatu have managed to write several popular science articles on their laptops on how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and manage pest and rodent risks.

"As we helped with post-cyclone health services at Vila Central Hospital, we saw that the number of patients suffering from common diseases after disasters increased, so we published these articles in the local newspaper to inform people and help with disease prevention," said Li Kai, a surgeon from Beijing Shijitan Hospital, which is affiliated with Capital Medical University.

Li led the nine-member team from the hospital that arrived in Vanuatu in September for a yearlong medical aid mission. Their average age is 44.

The disaster-prone country, which has a population of about 300,000 people, lies east of Australia. China has been sending healthcare workers there since the 1980s, but the team led by Li is the first medical aid group sent with the involvement of the national government.

Although Vanuatu was removed from the United Nations' list of least-developed countries in 2020, Li said the local living and healthcare conditions disheartened the group at first.

"There are scarcely any high-rises in the country. Most buildings are made from sheet iron or straw and contain little sturdy furniture," he said.

"The more serious problem is that most local hospitals have very limited medical equipment, such as only an ultrasound device or an X-ray machine," Li said. "Without more advanced technologies, like a CT scan and MRI equipment, we would be unable to perform the surgeries we had in mind before arriving."

Despite the difficulties, Li said the team has pressed on to fulfill its responsibilities and help as many people as they can with joint efforts of the Chinese Embassy in Vanuatu, local Chinese businesses and local governments.

A major task for the Chinese doctors is to provide technical guidance and training for hospital workers.

Chen Da, deputy leader of the team and a urologist, found that because of the lack of qualified surgeons and equipment, it was nearly impossible to perform minimally invasive surgeries at local hospitals, including such a routine procedure as a transurethral resection of the prostate, which involves cutting away a section of the prostate gland.

On Nov 11, Chen first gave a lecture to local doctors and answered their questions. Five days later, after the Chinese medical team obtained local medical licenses and donated medical equipment had been delivered, Chen and a local urological surgeon successfully performed that surgery on a 70-year-old man.

Li said that early the next morning, the team could still hear cheers from doctors at the hospital, who said, "Thank you! You are our and all Vanuatu people's good friends!"

Ye Huiming, a cardiologist, has so far given six lectures for local doctors on diagnosing and treating chest pain.

"I have planned more lectures, focusing on various topics including heart attacks, hypertension, heart failure and cardiomyopathy," Ye said. "It was not easy to integrate my clinical experience and design English courses for local doctors. Neither was it simple to change their outdated habits and approaches and to treat patients when we do not have modern equipment available."

"Thankfully, donations of cardiovascular drugs and clot-dissolving thrombolytic drugs could address some acute demands and bring hope for patients," he said. "We hope our efforts will reduce the dangers of chest pain here."

Li, the team leader, said they have also visited and offered medical consultation on three outlying islands so far — Vanuatu has about 80 islands.

"I remember the first island we visited was Nguna, where about 2,000 people live. Around 30 residents visited us in the afternoon. It was a tiring experience, but also gave us a sense of achievement," he said.

That first trip also made the team realize that island residents, apart from medication for common illnesses such as high blood pressure, also need external remedies to treat mosquito bites, open wounds and rashes caused by the humid tropical weather.

"With that in mind, we brought these medications to other islands to meet the specific demands," he said.

As the first group of medical workers sent to the nation, Li and his team members aim to accumulate experience and lay the foundations for future missions.

Renovation work at the desolate Chinese medical aid team's base began in early December and is expected to be completed within the next few months, providing a safer and more comfortable living environment for medical aid workers.

Li said that improving the overall health of local residents could require more than just healthcare efforts.

For instance, foot ulcers caused by diabetes are prevalent in Vanuatu. "Patients suffering from diabetic foot ulcers cannot fit into the flip-flops usually worn by Vanuatu people and often walk around barefoot, increasing the risk of getting cut and infected," Li said.

"A feasible and convenient means of reducing their pain would be donating slippers to protect their feet," he said.

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