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A Closer Look at Health Care in Tonga

Health Care in Tonga
Located in the Polynesian area of the Pacific Ocean, the Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of 169 islands with a population of about 107,693. Health care in Tonga is in a critical position as Tongan citizens face several health issues while the nation’s health system struggles with a lack of resources. Today, the most pressing issues are non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the onset of COVID-19.

Overview of the Health Care System in Tonga

Primary financing for health care in Tonga comes from the government but the nation still relies significantly on donor funding. Data from 2019 shows that about 5% of the country’s GDP went toward health care, equal to $242 per capita. The health care system is small, both in workforce and infrastructure. In 2013, the ratio of physicians to citizens was about 0.54 per 1,000 citizens. Furthermore, in 2015, the country had “34 maternal and child health clinics, 14 health centers, three district hospitals and the tertiary referral hospital” in place.

The Effects of NCDs Tongan Health

Unfortunately, Tonga has an incredibly high rate of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) with about 99.9% of the adult population facing a “moderate to high risk” of acquiring an NCD. In Tonga, about 80% of deaths are due to NCDs as compared to the global average of 70%. These diseases are not contagious and a combination of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle choices can cause them. Lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption, diet and lack of exercise stand as key causes of NCDs. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are among the main health concerns in Tonga. Fortunately, the government is aware of these issues and is working to combat these concerns.

Addressing the Prevalence of NCDs

Tonga’s current goal, in line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is to decrease NCD-related deaths by one-third by the year 2030. Over the years, Tonga has put in place policies and strategies to address the prevalence of NCDs. For example, in 2004, Tonga became “the first Pacific Island country to launch a National NCDs strategy.” A few years later, in 2007, Tonga became “the first Pacific island country to set up an autonomous body to address NCDs,” also known as the Tonga Health Promotion Foundation or TongaHealth. TongaHealth is a non-governmental organization that is working to promote physical activity, improve diets and educate people about the consequences of alcohol and tobacco use.

According to the TongaHealth website, “TongaHealth uses evidence-based approaches to increase the knowledge, skills and resources of key organizations through advocacy for and promotion of healthy environments and healthy living.” In 2014, Tonga also received recognition from the World Health Organization (WHO) for its work regarding tobacco taxation and control.

What About COVID-19?

While many nations were plunged into a total crisis of chaos when COVID-19 emerged, Tonga remained completely untouched by COVID-19 until October 2021, about a year and a half after most countries had seen their first cases. Unfortunately, the Hunga Tonga volcanic eruption in January 2022 created a need for humanitarian aid and Tonga began to see COVID-19 cases rising due to contact during humanitarian efforts. In response to the natural disaster, as of January 25, 2022, Tonga has received around $2.5 million worth of aid from the United States as well as additional international aid from France, Australia and New Zealand.

As of March 15, 2022, Tonga has recorded 2,072 COVID-19 cases and two deaths. There is a strict lockdown in place and humanitarian aid endeavors aim to be as contactless as possible. If a larger breakout occurs, Tonga’s health care system may struggle due to its lack of resources and infrastructure, a situation that would prompt urgent COVID-19 relief.

Looking Ahead

With ongoing commitments to combating NCDs and strengthening the health care system, the future of health care in Tonga looks bright.

– Mia Sharpe
Photo: Flickr