Playing Politics with Typhoid

Map Health centres. Click to enlarge.The area affected is inland of Sigatoka.
The Facts
The Fiji Ministry of Health has declared a state of public emergency in Navosa following two deaths, 20 confirmed cases and reports of over a 100 suspected cases of typhoid, a disease spread by bacteria that is usually transmitted through eating contaminated food or drinks prepared by someone who is sick. People over two years of age are being vaccinated to prevent the spread of the disease and public gatherings have been cancelled.

The Ministry advises visitors to villages and settlements to exercise caution with local water supplies and recommends tourists carry their own drinking water on such excursions. Tourists should avoid taking part in kava drinking ceremonies in rural areas unless tour operators can provide assurances that Fiji Ministry of Health guidelines are being observed. The public is urged to wash their hands with soap before taking food and after visiting the toilet. Australia is providing 60,000 vaccines and syringes. Notices have also been sent to hotel owners in the coastal areas to take precautions as the disease is infectious and could spread to other parts of the country.

No new travel advisory have been posted on DFAT or MFAT websites. Fiji remains "high risk" for Australians and "some risk" for New Zealanders --but for political reasons. The only MFAT health advisory on typhoid was posted last year when tourists were advised not to drink unboiled water when visiting rural villages. This, of course, could mean that the websites have not yet been updated.

Having a Field Day*
The outbreak is serious but the level of risk to tourists is surely overstated by Michael Field under a Stuff heading "Tourists warned of typhoid in Fiji." The warning he referred to came from Fiji health authorities who, as noted above, advised tourists to "exercise caution... on such excursions." The advice was specific to excursions (to villages) up the Sigatoka River. It was not a nation-wide warning.

 Field goes on to write: "A public health emergency has been declared in Fiji after an outbreak of typhoid in the major tourist belt region of the country."

The health emergency is limited to Navosa. The area affected is definitely not part of the Fiji's "major tourist belt." The outbreak is in Navosa, centred on Keiyasi, some 50km  inland from tourist hotels on the Coral Coast. It is accessible by an ungravelled road alongside the Sigatoka River. The relatively few tourists who visit the area do so on organized "village tours." Fiji's major tourist area is not the Coral Coast. The Nadi-Mamanuca area attracts over one-half of Fiji's tourists; the Coral Coast about a quarter. The nearest part of the Coral Coast (where no typhoid cases have been reported!) is a further 50km away from Nadi. Field blurs these localities and distances.
Further, Field writes: "The Fiji Times reported the outbreak was substantial but Health Ministry spokesman Iliesa Tora was refusing to divulge statistics of those infected." What more does Field want? He knows there have been two deaths, 20 confirmed and about a 100 suspected cases. Does he also want to know their ages and sex? No one is trying to hide the statistics, as Field infers. The figures have been reported in the mainstream media and the public is being kept up to date with developments. The latest figure is 263 suspected cases with 28 cases confirmed.

The problem has been caused by upstream villagers using the river as a toilet, and downstream villagers using the same water for drinking and cooking. Health spokesman Iliesa Tora (mentioned by Field for "refusing to divulge statistics") said "health teams had in the past educated villagers on the effects of unhygienic practices but this seemed to have been largely ignored."

Field goes on: "The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) says typhoid fever is a life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi"? All health authorities in tropical countries know about typhoid. Why does Field cite the US; why highlight that it is life-threatening? Relatively few people die of typhoid; vaccinations are available; infection can be avoided by taking normal sanitary precautions, and no tourist to Fiji has ever been known to die of typhoid, and I doubt more than a handful have ever been infected.

In contrast to Field's report, the US Gant Daily reported Ana Tudrau-Tamani (AHN News) from Suva. "Two people are confirmed dead in Fiji as a result of a typhoid outbreak in Navosa, one of Fiji’s fourteen provinces, forcing the Health ministry to declare a state of Public Health Emergency in the province." She is not quite right. Navosa is not yet an independent province from Nadroga but she did know it is not part of of Fiji's "major tourist belt" and The Sydney Morning Herald, reporting a new
infection figure of 263, called Navosa as "an isolated province on the main island of Viti Levu."

It is hard to believe that a slip of the pen caused our veteran Pacific journalist to get his geography so wrong.
* Definition field day: An opportunity for unrestrained activity.

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Walker texas ranger said…
We might expect scurrilous journalists and those of a questionable reputation and reliability to "get going" on this. Typhoid has always been endemic in Fiji: by which one means that carriers of typhoid have always been around. It is just that in the past twenty years less attention has been paid to them and where they live. If Michael Field and others like him were to spend more time analysing why this attention has been less and what might be usefully done to ensure it was refocused, then we would get somewhere useful.
Field of BS said…
Michael Field knows Fiji well so this is not some slip of the pen. It's a willful and deliberate attempt to spark a scare in NZ and make Kiwis think twice of holidaying in Fiji and choose somewhere else. Because he constantly wages war on the interests of ordinary people in Fiji, this guy deserves to be banned from the country for life. I also think it's high time that Field's NZ employers, Fairfax Media, are confronted with the broader consequences of his selective use of the truth. It's one thing to damage his own reputation as an impartial journalist. But this guy is also dragging the reputation of his employer through the dirt and giving the NZ media a bad name in the islands. Croz, I think it's high time for another official complaint to your media authorities. It seems the only way to shame some of these so called "Pacific journalists" like Field and Barbara Dreaver because they've got no shame themselves.
Proud Fijian said…
Croz I would suggest somone who is in NZ lodge a complaint with the NZ Broadcasting Authority as to the fairness of the report.

Barbara Dreaver was discplined by the the same authority for a unfair and biased unsubstantiated journalism on Samoa after the cyclones.
Croz Walsh said…
The hyperlink to the Field article should now work.
CICERO said…
Those who have few doubts about the proper conduct of Michael Field and others like him, should consider today's article in the SUNDAY SUN (page 3) about Julian Moti and his claims concerning Australian Aid to Fiji which he terms "AusAIDing and Abetting corruption in Fiji". Now that might sound far-fetched at first glance it? The briefcase consultants are not dissimilar to the pen-wielding parachute journalists who have dropped in and out on us for years with never a sensible nor useful comment because they have observed almost NOTHING of what goes on in Fiji. They appear neither to give a dam one way or the other. It is what these people FAIL to do that concerns us. They have failed on so many levels. They fail 'At Home' with their own people's development it seems. So they are good at what they do! Why not observe your own compatriots at work within Fiji. There are enough of them now with one foot in each place, beavering away quietly and allegedly corruptly with a foot in two places at once. Is Michael Field a part of this? Is he tainted too by what goes on? This gives him a genuine interest in muddying the blue waters of the Pacfic to serve his own ends and turn a blind eye to all manner of dirty tricks. In the end, all will be found out. Look at Kingston, Jamaica and see what forty years of turning a blind eye reaps!
sara'ssista said…
knowing the light verbal lashing others get for venturing into a completely different subject ... i suppose this comment is relevant how??
Croz Walsh said…
@ Proud Fijian .... see my exchange with TVNZ and Barbara Dreaver. To Barbara's credit, she took responsibility for her story, and RadioNZ has not even replied.
cut and paste descriptive blogs said…
@ Croz
Why would Barbara Dreaver not take responsibility for her story? It is well written and as she quite politely pointed out to you it is based on fact direct from the Ministry of Health (it is good to see a slight improvement in credibility of some of the information coming from ministries under the junta control and current media suppression in Fiji - more of this is needed)
As Barbara said - she bases her reports (as does the excellent analytical reporter Field) on facts direct from source - she does not take information from blogs which as she says are based on 'opinion and very little fact'. Some blogs it would appear are just cut and paste from dubious sources such as FBC with a bit of descriptive or opinionated distortions attached. Perhaps that is why little notice is taken of them?
Croz Walsh said…
@ Cut and paste ... Just ask yourself these yes/no questions: 1) Where is the outbreak? 2) Is it on the Coastal Coast? 3) Did Barbara or Michael Field draw the distinction between 1 and 2? 4) Would NZers have known from these reports that the outbreak was not in the main tourist area?
Q and A Session said…
Answering your questions on behalf of ‘Cut and paste”:
1) Navosa – about 50km up the Sigatoka River
2) No
3) No
4) Unlikely

Now, some questions for you:
1) Do you know the number of tourists that are vaccinated against typhoid before they enter Fiji?
2) Given that contracting the bacteria is easily prevented by oral and injectable vaccines, do you think that tourists might, with warning, be more inclined to be vaccinated against typhoid?
3) Which do you think would encourage tourists to be vaccinated against typhoid: a) advice that slightly downplays the danger or, b) advice that slightly overstates the danger?
4) Does the Sigatoka River flow towards the sea?
5) Is typhoid carried in flowing water?
6) Is it possible that the typhoid bacteria may, as a result of 4) and 5), swiftly come a lot closer to the Coral Coast than 50km?
7) Do the hotels along the Coral Coast arrange for tours to villages up the Sigatoka River?
8) Do people from the affected area and downstream work in the tourism sector?
9) Do the resorts draw some of their staff from villages in the Sigatoka River valley?
10) Why do you think the Ministry of Health sent notices to hotel owners in the Coral Coast area of Viti Levu to take precautions, when the outbreak is not on the Coral Coast?
11) Why is Dreaver and Field’s description of the outbreak’s location any different – in practice - to the cautionary advice sent out by the Ministry of Health to the Coral Coast which is an area remote from the actual outbreak?
12) Did you know that (according to Wikipedia) when typhoid is untreated, death occurs in up to 30% of cases and that even when treated, death occurs in approximately 1% of cases?
13) Do you think a disease that, even when treated, can result in 1 person in every 100 dying may reasonably be termed ‘life threatening’?
Croz Walsh said…
@ Q and A ...You have agreed with me that tourists would think the area of outbreak was in the main tourist area or the Coral Coast, as reported by Field and Dreaver respectively. This is why I criticized their reports.

The danger that the outbreak could spread was not denied. In fact, my postings drew attention to the possibility. The NZ reporters were not criticized on that account, only on the likelihood that tourists would be misled on the actual location of the outbreak by the reports.

Your Q & A's, although interesting, are therefore not strictly relevant to the main issue: the misreporting of the location of the outbreak and its consequences for tourism. More subdued and accurate reports have since been released.
Flogging a Dead Horse said…

If my Q&A’s appear interesting to you, but not strictly relevant, then please let me clarify my point.

The only thing that is strictly relevant for the tourist industry is that no tourists become infected by typhoid, from whatever source, by whatever means.

To avoid this possibility, and knowing how quickly typhoid can spread, the Ministry of Health issued warnings to hoteliers along the Coral Coast. Dreaver and Field extended the remote area in which the typhoid cases are presently located to include the tourist areas.

If the Ministry of Health, plus Field and Dreaver’s slight exaggeration, encourages tourists to vaccinate against typhoid, then kudos to all three. I’ve no doubt that Kiwi’s intending to visit Fiji will be more likely to read articles from Dreaver and Field’s than advisories from the Ministry of Health and so feel that that tourists are now far more likely to take the precaution of vaccinating against typhoid as a result of the journalists’ slight exaggeration

Whether or not their exaggeration caused some bookings to be cancelled for this easily prevented disease is beside the point. The consequences for tourism would be disastrous if a hotel’s guests DID become infected.

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