Discovering beauty and tragedy

The Mentawai Islands, located off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, are called "one of the most beautiful and isolated places on the planet." Malaria and other diseases are a rampant problem on the islands. Photo by Vic Calandra

While on a luxury surf holiday, a doctor from New Zealand discovers one of the most “intensely beautiful” places on earth, with one of the “worst child death rates in the world.”

By Laura Tate/Editor

Called one of the most “beautiful and isolated places on the planet,” the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia also have a child mortality rate of up to 50 percent before the age of five.

That’s what Dr. Dave Jenkins discovered while on a luxury surf trip, taking a break from his work as a director of a corporate health project in Singapore.

“Families were wasting away left and right,” Jenkins said.

It was a “watershed” moment, he said. “It was this weird juxtaposition, us enjoying the waves and this luxury, and then meeting these people with half the kids dying.”

Jenkins conducted research and found that the average life expectancy on the islands, which has a population of approximately 50,000 (the same size as Bali, which has a population of 4 million), is in the 30s, with not many making it past 50. The major problem the people of Mentawai (located off the coast of Sumatra) suffered from was malaria, with reportedly up to 50 percent of the population carrying the parasite. Other diseases and problems ravaged the islands as well including dysentery, tuberculosis, measles and malnutrition.

“Undoubtedly, the population is low because of the diseases,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins had a medical bag with him and did what little he could then.

Now, three years later, Jenkins, through the nonprofit organization he founded, Surf Aid International (SAI), and with help from volunteers (surf mates initially) and donations from corporate surf organizations, a malaria control project has been set up, and health and education programs initiated.

After establishing a small clinic in a hut at Katiet village in 1999, Jenkins went about setting up Surf Aid as a nonprofit in New Zealand in 2000. He approached people “who understood and wanted to help,” Jenkins explained. “It took a year to get financial support and get everything set up.”

Until a seed grant from Lonely Planet Publications and funds from the surf industry were obtained in 2001 to further expand efforts, Jenkins and his volunteers did what they could to start a malaria control project in a few smaller villages, and to give medical advice and treatment.

In 2001, after consulting the World Health Organization (WHO) on control strategies for malaria, education and training were implemented in Taileleu, one of the larger villages with a population of 2,800. In addition to helping form a Village Health Committee, health volunteers were trained, house-to-house education in how to control malaria was conducted, and mosquito nets that have been treated with long- acting insecticide were distributed. The nets are considered a critical element in the Malaria Control Project. In the following years the work has continued and expanded to the Malilimok village, where a parasite rate of 34 percent was found from 166 blood samples from children under the age of 12.

According to SAI’s Web site, malaria parasite rates have been reduced by 75 percent during the pilot phase of the project.

In addition to the Malaria Control Project, three other components of a Mentawai Health Programme have been implemented in the islands: the Childhood Health Project, the Health Worker Training Project and the Medical Supplies Project.

To continue in its work, the organization is looking for more sponsorships and donations, private or corporate, which already include Quicksilver, Lonely Planet and the Metro Surfing Foundation, as well as others.

“Our philosophy has been that we would make a difference in the islands and bank those results to involve larger industries,” Jenkins said. “We’re looking for close ties and long-term partnerships.”

Jenkins points to how “extremely effective” SAI has been with very little money. Until recently, Jenkins did not draw a salary and SAI has only spent $1,000 a year for three officers.

It was possible to do this, he said, “Because we have very passionate people.”

An office in San Diego was donated, as well as one in New Zealand and very little is paid for one in Indonesia.

One idea to bring in private donors is to start a sort of ecotourism industry, either luxury or roughing it, for those “people who would like to come and see the environment … [and] the children …

“The islands are one of the more extremely special areas in the world,” Jenkins said. “Very unique … a unique culture, very ancient.

“[It is] intensely beautiful.”

SAI has a five-year plan to extend the health program to 21 villages and an immediate goal to raise $2 million, of which almost 60 percent has been obtained.

More information can be found at the Web site,