An Israeli diplomat in Samoa is bringing Israeli experts to curb increasing obesity and diabetes in the South Pacific islands.
In the South Pacific islands of Upolu and Savaii, Samoans young and old love to gorge on the tinned “wonder meat” Americans know as Spam. It’s high in fat and calories and according to the Samoans – who prefer this processed food over locally grown fruits and veggies – it is way tastier. Israelis call the army staple loof and tend to loathe it.
Beefing up on Spam, soda, doughnuts and other kinds of sweet and fatty junk food, Samoa is seeing soaring obesity rates. Almost 60 percent of Samoans over the age of 25 are extremely obese, and because of that about one-quarter of the population suffers from diabetes. Due to a lack of government health policy, health education and organized healthcare, Samoans contend with many problems.
It is worlds away from Israel. The Independent State of Samoa is a collection of islands in the South Pacific Ocean part way between New Zealand and Hawaii. The people tend to be very tall, wide in stature and increasingly, extremely obese.
Michael Ronen, Israel’s ambassador to the Pacific Ocean Islands, became aware of the grave situation and decided to bring Israeli health specialists to Samoa. This past May, as part of an initiative known as MASHAV (National Agency for International Development Cooperation), Israel’s foreign ministry sent Orly Tamir, a researcher from the government’s Center for Technology Assessment in Health Care, and Dr. Roy Eldor, a diabetes expert at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, to help cure the South Pacific islanders of their diabetes and dangerous eating habits.
A slim, fast shake-up for Samoans
“They eat Spam morning, noon and night. Just 70 years ago they had vegetables, fruits and fish. Their whole way of life has changed,” Tamir tells ISRAEL21c. “They are poisoned by modern industry.”
The Israelis couldn’t change the habits of the entire country in one week, admits Tamir, but in meetings with young students, medical and health specialists and government officials they did suggest some basic steps for managing and controlling obesity and its related effects like diabetes.
Tamir, Dr. Eldor and an Israeli Foreign Ministry representative traveled by car to both urban and rural areas, visiting state-run and private elementary schools. They met with the school principals and observed the pupils’ eating habits at lunchtime as well as their activity levels at recess. The main emphasis was on understanding and raising awareness of the poor nutrition.
“In children you can’t notice it. As they grow into teens, they are getting very big, especially the grown-ups. And they are big people to begin with. They are tall and wide and now very fat,” says Tamir.
She tells ISRAEL21c that although the locals are aware of the problems caused by obesity, such as the risks of liver disease, heart attack and diabetes, which can lead to amputations and other health complications, “It’s hard to implement [change]. Spam is very cheap and fruit and vegetables are expensive. Meanwhile, imported food like Spam is considered better and more interesting, and it is very tasty.”
Tax the bad stuff
“My suggestion for them was to concentrate on policy at the national level and to set goals for the short and long-term and to monitor progress,” Tamir recounts. Another issue she opened up with Samoan officials is the idea of taxing the “imported stuff you don’t want people to eat and drink. This is a hot topic right now, and taxing [in this way] is happening all around the world. Just as [governments] did with cigarettes.”
Lack of organization among education, government and medical authorities means that insulin and other important diabetes medications are constantly in short supply in Samoa, and it’s not because there’s a lack of money for these resources, assesses Tamir. She thinks it’s an organizational problem.
“Blood test results take an inordinate amount of time (reagents are missing) and therefore are not useful in treatment,” she and her colleague write in a follow-up report.
Following their visit, the Israeli specialists devised a national plan for Samoa that includes straightforward steps for the prevention and treatment of obesity and diabetes. In addition, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs intends to assist its Samoan counterparts with implementation of the plan, which includes the improvement of healthcare facilities in Samoa.
An expression of gratitude from Israel
Although it is news to Tamir, according to follow-up media reports the government has plans to send more experts to Samoa, along with trainees and volunteers, for a period of several months. Since the recent tsunami, in September last year, which killed 189 people in the region and devastated the country, this program may take a while to implement.
According to Ambassador Ronen several months ago: “These are island states which are very friendly towards Israel in international forums and the UN. This is our chance to thank them for their friendliness.”
Tamir feels that the visit was very positive and was well received by the Samoan government. She also remarks that Samoa’s large percentage of Evangelical Christians have an interest in Israel that extends beyond the health advice offered by the traveling team of experts.
In a comment on an additional health hazard, with which Israelis are more familiar, Tamir remarks on Samoan drivers. She says that traveling Samoa’s roads was a somewhat nerve-wracking experience since the locals have recently made the switch from driving on the right side of the road like in America, to the left side, so that they can buy used cars from Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Even for an Israeli coming from a country with notoriously bad drivers, Samoan roads were “a bit crazy” during the switchover, smiles Tamir.