Nauru has healthcare concerns

THE head of health services on Nauru has asked that female and child asylum seekers not be sent to the Pacific island, and revealed the island would be unable to cope with any mental health issues of detainees.

Dr Setareki Vatucawaqa, Nauru's acting health secretary, also revealed the Australian army was helping refurbish one of the wards at the island's 70-bed hospital so it could be used to treat asylum seekers.

But once refurbished the ward will only have between four and 12 beds, and it is unclear whether that will be adequate to deal with the overflow of a camp slated for a maximum population of 1500.

''The position of the government of Nauru, which we've made known to the Australian government, is that while it is still a tent city, that we perhaps restrict [arrivals] to the men until more comfortable accommodation is provided,'' Dr Vatucawaqa said.

When asked if the medical situation at the camp was adequate, Dr Vatucawaqa said: ''Given the situation, yes. And things can only get better.''

The Nauruan health authorities had received briefings from the Australians about the medical conditions experienced by asylum seekers who stay on the island for ''between three to six months'', he said. ''One of our gaps here - that we are happy that our Australian counterparts are addressing - is mental health.''

The effects of long indefinite detention on asylum seekers is a contentious issue in Australia. Some published medical research argues most people detained longer than six months in immigration detention will suffer some form of mental health issue.

Gano Mwareow is Nauru's nursing director who, during the John Howard-era camp, provided assistance to asylum seekers at the site. She could not recall anyone who stayed for less time under that regime. If the situation is repeated under Labor, serious mental health issues could be experienced.

Nauru's clearly not in a position to assist regarding such health concerns. The island has two psychiatric care nurses, and one is studying abroad. A psychiatrist visits the island four times a year.

Another issue refugee advocates raise is the possibility Immigration Minister Chris Bowen may send pregnant women or children to the island before proper facilities are built.

''There is what some people would call a hard message, that you can't get an exemption by sending women and children,'' Mr Bowen has previously said. ''If I start issuing blanket exemptions … the people smugglers will be out there using that.''

Dr Vatucawaqa said he did expect any pressure to be placed on the Nauruan health system by the arrival of pregnant asylum seekers, but did reveal the hospital has one maternity ward - refurbished by AusAID last year - with eight beds and two delivery bays.

The story Nauru has healthcare concerns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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