Capsizing of Tuvalu boat carrying vaccines highlights climate change challenges, UNICEF says

By Thomson Reuters Apr 26, 2024 | 3:02 AM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The capsizing of a boat carrying childhood vaccines and health workers in Tuvalu underscored the challenges of healthcare in remote Pacific Islands as they battle extreme weather caused by climate change, the U.N children’s agency UNICEF said.

UNICEF supports Pacific Islands with reliable supply of vaccines, a priority in a region where hospitals can run out of medicine because of remote locations.

Extreme weather in low-lying atoll nations such as Tuvalu, which is impacted by climate change and rising sea levels, was also creating health challenges, UNICEF’s Pacific health specialist Frances Katonivualiku said.

“Health workers took vaccines to one of the remote islands and the boat capsized – the vaccines, health workers, everyone in the water. It is a really challenging situation,” she said in a telephone interview from Tuvalu on Wednesday.

In the incident last Monday, the health workers were rescued by islanders who took them to shore on the southern island, before they returned to the nation’s capital Funafuti, she said.

“We don’t have many health workers, so it is the same people that will need to recuperate and then go out again,” she added.

Tuvalu’s national election result was delayed in February after lawmakers were unable to travel to Funafuti from outer islands for two weeks because of king tides and extreme weather. Scientists predict Funafuti risks being inundated by 2050 because of climate change.

Dr Katonivualiku, who is visiting Tuvalu from Fiji for the immunisation programme, said extreme heat also made it difficult for mothers to bring babies to receive vaccinations during the day, so they had switched to evening clinics.

UNICEF had supplied fridges to ensure vaccines are stored at the correct temperature.

UNICEF said it had reached a milestone this week of nine Pacific Island nations, including Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Nauru, Niue, Tokelau and Kiribati, committing to introduce childhood vaccines for Pneumococcal, Rotavirus, and Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in their national immunisation programmes.

“We are seeing a tangible decrease in instances of pneumonia and diarrhoea since we have introduced these new vaccines. It is having an impact on the lives of children because these are the major causes of death in children under five,” she said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)