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Inaccurate news on Fiji life expectancies [Pacific Scoop, 18 December 2011]


Fiji’s media (Fiji Times, Fiji Live) quoted a recent Fiji Islands Health System Review by the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Polices (authored by Dr Graham Roberts and Fiji National University) that Fiji’s Life Expectancy had  “declined from 72.9 years to 67.8 years from the year 2000 to 2005”- a very large five year drop!

The story was picked up by Pacific Beat of Radio  Australia in an interview given by Dr Roberts, and also run by regional news organisations like PINA.

Life expectancies falling by 5 years within a 5 year period would be shocking news for any country, if it were true.   But it is fortunately not true for Fiji.

Such misleading media interpretations of available data have to be corrected.

If such statements are later shown to be blatantly wrong (as they are), then as with the boy too often crying “wolf”, the public can be desensitized to what is really a very serious development problem for Fiji- that life expectancies are stagnating and may even be declining for some ethnic and gender groups.

Severe discrepancies in data

  “Life expectancies at birth” are composite statistics based on rates of mortalities at all the different age groups- usually grouped into infant mortality, child mortality, and adult mortality.

Life expectancies at birth cannot decline dramatically by 5 years within 5 years unless something absolutely catastrophic is happening (like raging AIDS epidemics).

It would seem that the Graham Roberts/FNU study quoted a dubious Ministry of Health statement in its 2005 Annual Report, and the media pounced on this rather than the other many sensible messages in that Report.

However, a most recent paper published by Dr Karen Carter and others (academics at the University of Sydney and Fiji Ministry of Health officials) in the Australian and NZ Journal of Public Health, points out the many serious discrepancies in life expectancy estimates for Fiji.

The paper argues that many reports on Fiji’s life expectancy values (including some by the Fiji Ministry of Health) have not been based on sound methodology, and show great unrealistic variation.

When the Carter study “filtered” out all the unreliable reports, they were left with estimates that indicate that since the late 1980s, life expectancies in Fiji have been stagnating at 64 years for males, and 69 years for females.

Such results have been known in Fiji since the 1996 census results came out (see my Fiji Timesarticle of 21 January 2001  “Till death do us part”).

  Based on sound methodology, this latest paper by Carter and others confirm the bad news that the stagnation in Fiji life expectancies has continued to as recently as 2005, and possibly, beyond.

But nowhere do they imply that life expectancies in Fiji have  fallen by five years from the high figure of 72.9 years, as the media has recently publicized.

   Media misled

   It would be a pity if the international media  run with a story like this, inaccurately imputing this to be one of the damaging impacts of the Bainimarama 2006 coup.

For instance, the ABC Pacific Beat interview with Dr Graham Roberts focused very much on the possible impact on life expectancies of military coups (by implication also the Bainimarama coup), with Dr Roberts emphasizing all the resulting hardships and increasing poverty and stresses in life.

Dr Roberts in his ABC interview rightly focused on the impact of modern diets and non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.   Dr Roberts also told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat that no single factor can be blamed for the dramatic fall. “It’s the fact there’s been multiple transitions going on,” Professor Roberts said.

“We’ve got urbanisation, we’ve got changes in dietary patterns, we’ve got political instability. We’ve got large proportions of the population moving into poverty, we’ve got a significant proportion of the population living in squatter settlements with inadequate water and sanitation.  And these are symptoms, once again, [of] the hard times.”

All correct.  These impacts are well documented not just in Fiji but elsewhere in the world.  And of course, military coups can have an impact on life expectancies through these factors.

Except that the actuaql impacts of military coups on life expectancies have yet to be scientifically quantified.

And there is definitely no credible evidence of Fiji’s life expectancy falling from  “72.9 years in 2000 to 67.8 years in 2005”.

The study by Dr Carter and others made no statement about the impact of the 2006 Bainimarama coup on life expectancies over the last five years.

The only reliable numbers suggest that there has been a disturbing stagnation of life expectancies in Fiji, and the possibility of decline amongst some vulnerable groups.

This can be seen in the graph here, based on World Bank data.

Interesting questions are posed for demographers. Why has Tonga’s life expectancy, which has been much higher than Fiji and other Pacific countries, been leveling off in recent years?

The graphs for PNG and Solomon Islands (the bottom two graphs) are extremely disturbing, and hopefully partly a statistical problem.  But are they also indicative of the political and economic instability that these two countries have gone through?

Why is it that life expectancy in Vanuatu, in contrast to other Melanesian countries, indicates a slow but steady growth, now surpassing Fiji?  Is it a coincidence that Vanuatu has enjoyed reasonably good health policies and stable governments?

Let us hope that Fiji’s 2007 Census results, long overdue, can reveal more accurate information on the latest developments in life expectancies amongst Fiji’s groups, and more scientific studies that can separate out the impacts of various factors, including perhaps, the impact of coups.

Until then, the media should correct the false impressions created by the recent incredible story that Fiji’s life expectancy has dropped by 5 years in 5 years.  That is not the case.



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