UM to study health needs of Pacific nation Under $40,000 contract, three physicians to spend 11 days in Marshall Islands

September 28, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Republic of the Marshall Islands -- the scene of atomic bomb tests by the United States in the 1940s and '50s -- signed a $40,000 agreement yesterday with the University of Maryland School of Medicine to conduct a broad assessment of the health care needs of the country's 52,000 inhabitants.

A team of three UM doctors is to leave for the Pacific nation this weekend for an 11-day study of the general health of the residents and to review the adequacy of the health care system and public health infrastructure.

Next spring, a multidisciplinary team from the University of Maryland at Baltimore will fly to the islands for a two-week mission to address a wide range of medical needs, including illnesses believed to be a legacy of the atomic tests.

Team members on that trip will go as volunteers, but their expenses will be borne by the island government. They are not included in the $40,000 agreement.

Dr. Donald E. Wilson, dean of the medical school, said, "We feel we have an obligation to reach out with this sort of expertise." The faculty who go "get enormously broadened by the experience, in their research and their understanding of health care problems in other areas."

A nation of more than 900 islands and reefs in the western Pacific, the republic has a land area of just 70 square miles, but it is scattered across an area twice the size of Texas. It came under U.S. administration after World War II.

It became self-governing in 1979, and in 1986 entered the "Compact of Free Association" with the United States. Under that 15-year agreement, the United States provides for the nation's defense and for the settlement of health claims arising from the nuclear tests at the Bikini, Eniwetok and Kwajalein atolls between 1946 and 1958.

Although the U.S. departments of the Interior and Energy have monitored the islanders' health and conducted health assessments in the past, the nation's government no longer believes it can rely solely on them.

"It is very difficult for an organization that conducted the [bomb] tests to tell us whether our people are safe or not," said the Marshalls' foreign minister, Phillip Muller. "We are looking for outside sources to help us conduct medical assessments."

Island officials turned to UMAB in large measure because of work in island health care by Dr. Claudia Baquet, the school's associate dean for policy and planning.

In 1993, she conducted a policy study for the Clinton administration of the health care needs of native Hawaiians and other American nationals in American Samoa, Micronesia and Palau, and on island nations belonging to the compact, including the Marshalls.

Muller said yesterday that his government is concerned about what he said are elevated rates of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses on the islands.

His government also hopes that the UMAB schools of pharmacy, nursing, dentistry and medicine will provide islanders with training opportunities in those professions.

Baquet said too many islanders who train in Hawaii never return to the Marshalls. The islands also lack an "integrated" health care delivery system that can provide for all their citizens' needs. Communications with outlying atolls are "crude," and transportation in emergencies is inadequate.

The medical school hopes to develop "telemedicine" satellite links with the islands so that health care providers there can consult with experts in Baltimore and participate in programs.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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