A Changing Arctic – New Health Challenges

Helse- og omsorgsminister Bent Høies innlegg på Arctic Frontiers

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!

In September last year, rescue teams, organisations and agencies from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia arrived in Lyngen municipality in Troms to assist after a large destructive rockslide. The situation required emergency assistance to those directly affected by the rockslide and evacuation of the nearby population. Fortunately this was not a real ituation, but part of Barents Rescue, a full-scale rescue and cooperation exercise carried out every second year in the Barents Region. In addition to the Barents countries that participated, observers from several other countries were also present.

In November 2011, one Russian and one Norwegian ambulance crossed the border at Storskog – Borisoglebsk. This was to test the agreement on emergency cooperation and planned medical transportation concluded between the regional health authorities in Finnmark and Murmansk in 2010.

These are two examples of activities undertaken to meet the changing conditions in the Arctic. The long term collaboration between the health and emergency preparedness authorities that has created a climate of mutual trust and understanding has made it possible to organise joint exercises. The commitment of the countries involved shows that we share the understanding of the necessity to meet the requirements of a changing situation in the High North. There is a renewed interest in the Arctic and an increase in human activity both on land and on sea. The health authorities must be prepared to respond to the needs of the resident population, commuters, tourists and visitors.

In the past, health has often been referred to as a “soft” policy issue, and international health collaboration has been seen first and foremost as part of the people-to-people collaboration, often grouped together with cultural exchange and sports.

Culture and sports are important for quality of life as is health, but with the changed conditions and the real challenges that we face, health is, and should be, an important component of the overall policy for the High North in its own right.

Being able to provide good conditions for a healthy life to the population is a precondition for human activity, and thereby development in all other sectors. One such sector is the oil and gas industry. The health system must be prepared to respond to the needs that follow from increased human activity and traffic both on land and at sea. Here we can also benefit from collaboration with other countries through The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement that allows for sharing of information and mutual aid and assistance.

 

Focus on the patient

As minister of health and care services, it is important for me that we maintain the focus on the patient when planning our health systems. We should bear this in mind when we develop our services; in the hospitals, when it comes to emergency preparedness and in our regional collaboration.  

The health services must be responsive to the patients and also be sensitive to cultural differences and the needs of the indigenous populations.

There are special challenges related to natural climate conditions and temperature, to large distances and to reaching the users of health services in sparsely populated areas.

Use of modern technology can be an advantage. A telemedicine system gives direct transmission of sound and picture from the hospital in Longyearbyen/Svalbard to the university hospital in Tromsø. It allows for guidance if needed in connection with injuries and trauma.

Picture-transmission also allows for rapid diagnosis of X-rays. Svalbard has the highest occurrence of scooter accidents in the world.

We must be able to adapt to climate change. The effects of climate change are especially visible in the Arctic Region, where the flora and fauna is vulnerable to environmental pollutants that have been transported over distances and to changes in temperature. These changes ultimately effects human health and activity.

 

In Norways interest to have a collaboration with fellow Arctic Countries

Ladies and gentlemen! With the increased contact across the borders and a more integrated labour market, international and regional health cooperation has become even more important than in the past. It is in our interest to have a well functioning collaboration with our neighbours and fellow Arctic Countries. 

We must have a system for sharing information when it comes to outbreaks of infectious diseases, and we should develop strategies to prevent life style related health problems.  We need collaboration between research institutions.  An example of a successful collaboration is the long term contact between the University of Tromsø, the Northern State Medical University in Arkhangelsk, involving also other partners from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, on the establishment of the School of Public Health.

In the beginning, students received their diploma from the University of Tromsø. From 2011, the degree has been accredited as part of the Russian education system. Just a few days ago, I learned that the School of Public Health in Arkhangelsk has now also received funding from the Russian national authorities for its Master programme. I would like to congratulate the partners involved in the project!

By working together we can get a better understanding of the situation in the Arctic. The collaboration under the Arctic Council’s working groups is an example of this.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)s  report: Human Health in the Arctic from 2009 gives us valuable information on the effects of environmental pollutants on human life in the Arctic. I believe that the updated version that is now under preparation, as well as the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG)s report; Arctic Human Development Report II, will give us useful insight to the situation in the Arctic.

I am looking forward to these two publications, and also to learning more about the work on human health in the Arctic Council already today from the chairs of the two groups; Jon Øyvind Odland and Jutta Wark later in this session.

 

Mental health and Suicide prevention

Based on new knowledge generated under the Arctic Council and other structures for health collaboration that we are involved in, we can get new ideas and find solutions that will benefit the region as a whole and the population in the area.

One new collaboration project under the Arctic Council is the Promotion of mental wellness and resilience to address suicide in the circumpolar communities. These are issues that are close to my heart.

 

My government is working for improving the mental health services that we provide to the population. If we are able to offer help to children and young people earlier, we may be able to handle the problems while they are still small.

A new Norwegian plan for prevention of suicide is in the late stages of development, and will focus more on the development and implementation of clinically relevant knowledge in this field. Among the new developments is the inclusion of self harm in this action plan.

The risk of developing mental disorders must be understood as a combination of genetic vulnerability and exposure to various environmental factors.

Some of these environmental risk factors reflect living habits like physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol abuse and dietary issues, but macro-level environmental factors, such as increased unemployment, can increase the risk of mental health problems.

The Arctic peoples share some common challenges across national borders. To collaborate on health monitoring, identify common health challenges and share knowledge of mental wellness promotion and suicide prevention strategies would be very valuable.

We therefore welcome Canada’s initiative to evaluate mental wellness promotion strategies and suicide prevention interventions in the circumpolar region. This project will provide important knowledge about how to offer targeted and effective interventions in the region.

 

Conclusion

To conclude my presentation, I would like to commend the organizers for choosing “Humans in the Arctic” as the title of this year’s conference, and I would like to thank you for inviting me.

I believe the venue of the conference is very well chosen. The research carried out, and the education provided by the specialist communities in Tromsø; at the University and the Northern Norway University Hospital is a valuable contribution to the development of the Arctic.

Together with our neighbours and other countries involved in the health collaboration under the Arctic Council, I believe that we can contribute to improving the health situation and the quality of life for everyone in the Arctic.

I wish you all the best for the rest of the conference!