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Psychological first aid in measles-affected Samoa

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A Massey University psychologist flew to Samoa this week to take smart phones and tablets donated by the University to equip counsellors and church ministers dealing with grieving families caught up in the measles epidemic.

Dr Siautu Alefaio-Tugia, from the School of Psychology on the Auckland campus, also took donated goods and money from a community fundraiser in Auckland to help families in need.

"This epidemic has hit families in poverty the hardest, especially those that live far away from hospital and medical facilities," Dr Alefaio-Tugia says. "IT equipment was very well received and will make follow-up of families hardest-hit easy to manage."

Christmas will be a particularly tough time for those families mourning children who died in the measles outbreak, she says. And counsellors and ministers face challenging months ahead when international medical and humanitarian aid teams leave Samoa once the crisis eases.

"With over 70 deaths, there is a lot of need and those working on the second line of support need ongoing help. We want to support the great work that ministers/pastors, their wives, and counsellors as front-line workers do with grieving families, by ensuring co-ordination is equipped with the right tools - what they are doing is psychological first aid."

To date, 76 children have died in the two months since the outbreak started. Last Saturday, Samoa's Ministry of Health confirmed a total of 5154 measles cases in this period. A state of emergency declared due to the measles epidemic was to have ended on December 15, but has been extended to December 29.

During her five-day trip to Apia, Dr Alefaio-Tugia will set up a data collection and monitoring system developed at Harvard University and designed for use in the field by humanitarian organisations dealing with emergencies and working in difficult environments. The KoBo tool - deployed through the Massey ITS-donated equipment - will keep track of families seen at the hospital to ensure follow-up support is provided. Massey donated six refurbished smart phones and three new tablets (including one donated by Vodafone).

Lizzie Valentine, chief information officer for ITS, says: "we are delighted to be able to support this great initiative with re-purposed mobile phones and new tablets".

Faith-based counselling

Dr Alefaio-Tugia has been working with Massey alumni Reverend Dr Alesana Pala’amo and his wife Lemau Pala’amo, who established Soul Talk Samoa, a counselling service that focuses on the local needs and supporting Samoan counsellors, pastors and youth leaders. Rev Pala’amo graduated from Massey in 2017 with a PhD in social work.

"It highlighted the main need in Samoa was for churches and support services to work together," Dr Alefaio-Tugia says. A "mind-shift" among aid agencies is needed to recognise that counselling services are inevitably faith-based throughout the Pacific because church is a central body of everyday life.

"Working with church ministers and pastors within the framework of disaster response is an opportunity to emphasise their role as leaders in advocating positive health messages, such as the importance of getting a measles vaccination," she says.

Dr Alefaio-Tugia is part of the New Indigenous Unity of Pacific Humanitarians - a Massey Pacific research collective from the School of Psychology that organises fono on a range of emergency and disaster recovery themes as well as youth empowerment around the Pacific and in New Zealand.

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