Former Cook Islands PM Honored By World Health Organization

Dr Joe Williams recognized for contribution to eliminating elephantiasis

By Angie Enoka

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Nov. 7, 2016) – Former Cook Islands prime minister Dr Joe Williams has been 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.

The Aitutaki-born Williams has been feted for his time spent on medical research and drug treatment programmes on tropical diseases in the Cook Islands.

The award was accepted on behalf of Dr Williams by Health minister Nandi Glassie during his visit to the Philippines last month.

“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 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.”

Dr Williams says the award makes him glance back to the past to an era when he resided in the Cook Islands, at a time when numerous medical research and mass treatment programmes were being conducted on a number of tropical diseases that ravaged the tropical world.

“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.

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 that 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 done after a year showed that filariasis infestation had been dramatically reduced from 45 per cent to 0.08 per cent.

The report to the university stated: “That except for six 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 per cent. 

“Dr Robert Woonton and his team reduced that rate to 2 per cent 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.”

Dr Williams has attracted many accolades during his long career in medicine and politics.

Cook Islands News
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