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Doctor fights tobacco ‘health threat’ abroad

Tara Kessaram decided enough was enough.

The 33-year-old doctor was tired of losing patients to preventable diseases.

She left clinical practice to study public health in 2011 and in April, moved to the Solomon Islands to reduce the impact of cigarette smoking there.

“An interest in science and a desire to help people led me into medicine,” said Dr Kessaram. “I went into public health to create change at a deeper level. Tobacco is one of our biggest public health threats. It exerts a huge economic burden on society due to premature lives lost.”

About 410 people die annually from smoking-related diseases in the Solomon Islands. The island chain, which sits 2,000 miles northeast of Australia, has a population of 572,865. Dr Kessaram is a consultant with the World Health Organisation and works closely with the Ministry of Health.

“We'd like to see enforced existing rules about how cigarettes are sold,” she said. “In the Solomon Islands it is common to sell cigarettes individually or in broken packages and this makes it easier for young people to buy them.

“We'd like to stop this. We'd also like to make sure that all packaging includes graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking.”

Dr Kessaram studied public health at the New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine.

She said there was something familiar about life in the Solomon Islands.

“I wonder if I am trying to find home away from home,” she laughed. “It does feel like I am island hopping a bit. The Pacific islands are quite different from Bermuda and the Caribbean, but they can be beautiful settings.

“Choosing an island to work on was not a conscious choice though, it just seems to have happened that way.”

She's learnt not to take running water, sanitation or even a continuous supply of electricity for granted in the Solomon Islands. “Developing countries don't always have the resources that other countries have,” she said. “Right now the challenge is water. For a time, the government was shutting off the water for short periods to conserve. You had to time things around that, such as washing your dishes or your clothes.”

Rain started falling shortly before she returned to Bermuda for Christmas.

“I didn't run out in it because it was very heavy,” she said. “But I enjoyed looking at it from the window. I don't actually know if that was the end to the drought as you need quite a sustained period of rain to end it.”

Her parents, John and Sony Kessaram, have been her greatest influences.

“My parents are role models for having a good work ethic and giving back to the community,” she said. “Because of their example, as a teenager I volunteered at The Family Centre, and BUEI.

“When I went to university in London, I worked in a drama programme for teenaged sex offenders. I also worked with refugees. I'm not doing any volunteering right now as my work is quite time-consuming.

“I do hope that through my work I can contribute to the community and make a change.”

She lives in a budget hotel in the capital city of Honiara.

“The city has a population of 65,000,” she said.

“It's quite a small city. I love telling my colleagues that the entire population of my country is smaller. I do a lot of explaining about the Bermuda Triangle.”

What she misses most about home is her mother's cooking.

“Whatever I make, it doesn't turn out like she makes it,” she said. “I'm not really a good cook. I wish I'd paid attention more before I left home. To cope, I just find friends who cook well.”

She is pleased to see that things may be improving in Bermuda in relation to cigarette smoking.

The Tobacco Control Act 2015 was brought before the House of Assembly last Friday. If passed, the sale of cigars, cigarettes and e-cigarettes would come under stricter control and rolling papers would be classified as a tobacco product.

“Any steps leading Bermuda to becoming smoke- or tobacco-free would be excellent,” she said.

Breaking the habit: Tara Kessaram hopes to cut the number of smokers in the Solomon Islands through her work with the World Health Organisation (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published December 16, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 16, 2015 at 12:58 am)

Doctor fights tobacco ‘health threat’ abroad

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