Tongan doctors struggle to keep up with Zika threat

(file, Reuters)
(file, Reuters)

In a dimly lit corridor at Tonga's main hospital, men and women, many cradling toddlers, wait for their turn to see the doctor.

I'm there with camera operator Chrissy Smith waiting to talk to the chief medical officer about the spread of the Zika virus.

It's stifling hot. The ceiling fan isn't doing much to disperse the humid, sticky air. The security lady approaches me and says "It's full like this every morning - people with the fever". While it was impossible to know whether every person in the waiting area had symptoms linked to the dreaded Zika, she was adamant most did.

And when the chief medical officer of health, Dr Reynold O'fanoa, arrived with his latest case numbers, it certainly sounded serious. Seven people had been confirmed with the virus, and there were a further 542 suspected cases. The figures were well up on what was publicly released just four days ago. Worryingly, three of the suspected cases are pregnant women.

The reason there's so many "suspected" cases is because testing takes time and money. It can be a six-day turn around if you send samples to labs in Tahiti, Auckland or Australia. And you can't just fire off 500 tubes of blood at a time.

Dr O'fanoa described the latest figures as "concerning", but with typical Tongan resilience, he said he and his team were coping okay. He would later tell me, however, that they didn't have enough vehicles, equipment or staff to reach all the at-risk communities and schools. They've started an awareness and clean-up programme to get rid of mosquito breeding sites, but there's no doubt they could do with some extra people on the ground.

Tonga is of course used to battling outbreaks of mosquito-borne viruses, including dengue fever and chikungunya. They don't have the flash insecticide fog guns you may have seen accompanying TV news stories out of Brazil recently. That type of kit is too expensive, although I'm sure Tonga would gratefully receive such devices if some were on offer. The Zika epidemic could have serious implications for this fledging archipelago. The country's economy is heavily reliant on remittances from Tongan nationals living overseas - mainly in New Zealand and Australia. But increasingly, it's tourism which makes this place tick - so it goes without saying that the spread of Zika in the Friendly Islands is an unwelcome headline.

Perhaps then it's time New Zealand did something to assist our close Pacific neighbours. Whether it's staff, equipment, or advice, I'm sure the health workers here would be grateful.