Push to improve water supply in Kiribati to cut child deaths | Pacific Beat

Push to improve water supply in Kiribati to cut child deaths

Push to improve water supply in Kiribati to cut child deaths

Updated 4 August 2014, 11:35 AEST

The Island Rescue Project is an Australian aid organisation aiming to save i-Kiribati babies by improving water supply and sanitation.

The project was founded in August last year, in response to the high infant death rate in Kiribati, with 1 in 20 babies failing to survive early childhood.

Founder Carol Armstrong has just returned from her initial 17-day mission to Kiribati, educating locals on hygeine and providing them with purification tablets and personal water filters.

She says her organisation brought a personal, small-scale perspective to issue.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Carol Armstrong, founder, Island Rescue Project

ARMSTRONG: OK, sure. Well, it's used extensively in Africa and Asia, but the premise is that you can fill a clear plastic water bottle, that you've bought water or soda pop in and you can put that water out in the sun for 7 hours in those plastic bottles and the ultra-violet rays of the sun will actually make that water safe to drink. It does kill the pathogens that are in it that are of a concern. And that only lasts for a couple of days, so obviously they need to drink it within that time frame, but it's free. It doesn't cost them anything and everyone can do it. So that was one method. The other method we were using was the life straw personal water filter. These are able to take out 99 percent of all viruses and bacteria and it's something you can carry around your neck and just pull it out and use it. It's like a huge MacDonalds straw that you would have in a thick shake, only it's much larger. And we also taught some of the local men there how to build a home size unit for solar water desalination from using the ocean water. So that was pretty exciting and it's early days yet. We've still got to a lot more on that and we'll be following up in a few months with a return visit. 
But the thing they were most excited about was because the well water is contaminated with whatever leaches through to the surface, to the underground water supply, and that could be from an old car rusting away and whatever's in it, to anything that's decomposing on the surface or buried just below the surface. Anyway, we were able to take in some calcium chloride capsules and you just put one of those capsules in 50 litres of water, and within an hour, it's safe to drink. It's a form of bleach, but it's used by a lot of humanitarian services for disaster relief work and they were just so pleased to have something that they could use immediately and get an immediate result.
EWART: These are positive steps. Of course, in the process along the way essentially to educate the people there in Kiribati to look after themselves as you've suggested. But I think just to explain really the sort of situation that you're dealing with there and the other people who are involved. I gather when you got back home, you were sick yourself a couple of days later?
ARMSTRONG: Yes, I was. Yeah, I think on the last few days, I was getting a bit carefree about my own personal attention to what I was doing and it was actually probably a good thing. It helped me to understand what many islanders go through on a regular basis, so able to use the same natural remedy that we'd taken in, which was the minerals zealite. It's not a medicine, but it's detoxifying and it stops bacteria from surviving due to starving them of their food source and it stops the virus from replicating and we found it very effective. In fact, the islanders seemed to respond within 8 to 10 hours with just two doses or three doses, which surprised me, because it actually took me three days when I got back. So obviously the many times they've been sick with gastro enough, they've built up their bodies to be more resistant to it than what I was.
EWART: What were you expecting before you set out on this mission to Kiribati and were you shocked by what you found?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I wasn't too sure what I was going to find, because all my research and been over the internet and of talking to people who live here in Australia that come from the islands. But what I was shocked about, I thought I was going in to help people that had no access to doctors or hospitals, I was thinking of people further afield and we did go to the island of Mara-kay(phonetic) and some of the outer islands rely mostly on a nurse in a health clinic, and that's great, but we thought could enhance that with what we had to offer. 
I went into the Ministry of Health Clinics, and asked if they had anything for a baby with diarrhoea and I was really shocked when they said no, we don't. We've got the rehydration sachets to give people and if they go to the hospital they have IV drip to rehydrate. I just couldn't understand that there was no medications to actually help with the problem and that was the case everywhere. And even when I spoke with the bank manager, he had recently travelled to Kiribati from Melbourne to take up his position there and it was a concern for him, because he had a one year old child. 
And I spoke with Gordon Fraser, the Australian High Commissioner and he said well, what you've got to understand is the statistics for Kiribati are not truly representative of the situation and I think a lot of the medicines are actually donated by the drug companies and I think there has to be a certain statistic where they do that and I think because it's not truly representative of the situation, they must be missing out on that at the moment.
I'm not 100 percent sure that that's 100 percent correct, but that was the impression I received at the time.
EWART: Just a quick word Carol. You have another trip planned I gather. I mean will it be a case of building on what you and the others have started next time you go?
ARMSTRONG: Yes. Next time, I would like to go to some of the islands further afield, like Beru or Nanouti They miss out on a lot, because most of the activity happens on Tarawa, and that's where the largest population is, over 52-thousand on this tiny island. And that also causes a lot of migration from the outer islands to the main island, because they're looking to receive some of those benefits, whereas if we can help take more to the islands where they are, then they can focus on building up their own island.
That sounds like I think, everything's revolving around what we do. That's not true, of course. There's many issues to be looked at. But when you have children who don't survive their childhood from a simple thing as gastro, that's pretty distressing, and it's something that can be prevented, it's something that can be treated.


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