There’s trouble in the Solomon Islands. As the government, with the aid of international peacekeepers, focuses on maintaining the rule of law and keeping in check the ethnic tensions that threatened political stability a few years ago, chronic health problems keep getting worse in the troubled Pacific nation.
Diabetes and heart disease are rife, as are cancer-causing viruses such as the human papilloma virus. But besides being hit by this double-whammy of stereotypically Western and developing-nation concerns, the Islanders also face a unique problem in a higher-than-average and increasing incidence of abnormal growths: tumours for which there is no satisfactory explanation.
Stanley‘s a teenager. He misses his school in Honiara, where his favourite subject is maths. He’s a defender in his soccer team. Stanley seems like a happy and healthy young man with a cheeky smile and a mischievous nature. However, intermittently and without warning, Stanley fits or projectile vomits as the unidentified lesion in his brain produces its symptoms.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Tumours worry the Solomon Islands’ Honorary Consul-General, Trevor Garland. A University of Sydney-trained medical doctor; he practised medicine in the Solomons, running a hospital and area health service in the Western Provinces before taking up his diplomatic post. During that time he forged a relationship with St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and as a result that hospital has undertaken, as part of its charitable charter, to treat 10 patients a year from the Islands.
‘We see tumours in the Solomon Islands that you see in Pacific Island races [but] don’t see very often in Caucasians,’ Garland explains. ‘We see rare facial tumours – benign, but fatal because they eat away at the mandible or jawbone. An ENT [ear, nose and throat] surgeon might see one in 20 years, where we had a run on them. We gave a surgeon three in one year. There are also weird sarcomas that you might see in very, very small numbers in a larger population. We’re seeing them in significant numbers in the Solomon Islands population.’
Rex is just 17 months old. He’s an engaging child with big, blue eyes – not an unusual characteristic in his part of the Solomon Islands. His beautiful little face is marred by a growth that extends from his neck to halfway up his head, seriously disfiguring one ear. In his short life, the tumour has grown so large that it’s now bigger than his head, which he struggles to hold up against the weight of the tumour. The tumour is winning for now. Still, his lop-sided smile is infectious.
Garland is not convinced that ethnicity alone is a satisfactory explanation. He suspects an underlying cause of the tumours may be the after effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific finding their way to the Solomon Islands via the main food source: fish.
Studies suggest geography a factor
These suspicions were first prompted by research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 1992. A paper titled Incidence of cancer among Pacific Island people in New Zealand tracked the epidemiology of new cancer registrations among Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand compared to the Maori population (who originated in the Pacific Islands). There was a higher incidence amongst Pacific Islanders, which suggests geography is a factor.