Pasifika Medical Association patron Dr Joe Williams was honoured with the World Health Organisation (WHO) Award of Appreciation in recognition of his contribution towards the elimination of the tropical disease ‘lymphatic filariasis’, also widely known as elephantiasis during his time as doing medical research and drug treatment programmes on tropical diseases in the Cook Islands.
The award was accepted on behalf of Dr Williams by the current Minister of Health for the Cook Islands Hon. Nandi Glassie during his visit to the Philippines in October 2016.
“I was fortunate enough and greatly honoured to receive this Award of Appreciation on behalf of Dr Joe Williams and all those who have taken an active participation in the elimination of lymphatic filariasis. Their work in this area served as a model for other countries in the world to follow,” says Hon Glassie.
“I cannot help but mention some names alongside yours, during the pioneering era; the late Dr Sir Thomas Davis, the late Dr Sir Pupuke Robati, the late Dr Sir Terepai Maoate, Dr Robert Woonton and many more. The list is endless.”
“From the people of the Cook Islands here and abroad, and the staff of the Ministry of Health, Congratulations” – Hon Glassie.
Dr Williams says the award makes him glance back to the past, during an era when he resided in the Cook Islands with a lot of medical research and mass treatment programmes on a number of tropical diseases that ravaged the tropical world including the Cook Islands.
“The diseases included Filariasis, tropical Pulmonary Eosmophilia, Eosmophilic Meningo-encephalitis, Intestinal Helmiathiasis, Leprosy TB and without doubt, the Cook Islands were leading the Pacific countries and perhaps other parts of the World in eradicating these diseases.”
“The most notable programme was Filariasis which WHO used as a model for the global programme Elimination Lymphatic Filariasis (PELF).”
This was acknowledged by the Director General Dr Nakajima in 1998 which led to the appointment of Dr Williams to the Global Expert Review Committee to oversee PELF.
“The initial pilot filariasis project was conducted in Aitutaki in 1968 by a team comprising of Dr Williams, Dr Terepai Maoate, Dr Denis McCarthy, Dr Tere Snowball, Dr Steven Kavana and the Aitutaki Health staff.”
The research showed nearly half of the Cook Islands population was infected with filarial worms.
In 1969 a clinical team from the University of Hawaii (including Dr Williams) conducted a review of the filariasis programme after a year of monthly drug treatment to every person over the age of 5 years.
A review study done after a year showed that filariasis infestation had been dramatically reduced from 45% to 0.08%.
The report to the University stated: “that except for 6 positive cases who were recent arrivals to the island from Rarotonga, filariasis had been eliminated from the population of Aitutaki.”
Based on the success of the Aitutaki project the team decided to introduce the filariasis MDA to all islands in the group.
Dr Williams recalls, the island of Mangaia had the highest infestation rate at 75%.
“Dr Robert Woonton and his team reduced that rate to 2% in one year.”
Dr Williams highly commends the work of the health professionals working in the islands.
“The people who deserve the congratulations most in our pioneering programme were the doctors and the health staff on each island who gave out treatments to every person every month, year after year.”
Dr Williams saw his role as providing support and leadership to the programmes and is humbled to be recognised by the World Health Organisation.
“My role was one of support in providing the initial hypothesis for such a bold programme and I suppose providing also the early leadership and encouragements to the entire filariasis and other disease elimination programmes.”
Pasifika Medical Association offer their heartfelt congratulations to Dr Williams’s outstanding achievements during his long career in medicine and politics.
The award reads:
World Health Organization APPRECIATION AWARD presented to COOK ISLANDS in recognition of having eliminated lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem, at the occasion of the sixty-seven session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific 10-14 October 2016 – WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific Manila, Philippines.
Signed by Dr Margaret Chan, Director General and Dr Shin Young-soo.