Last volunteer medical mission to depart this month

By Jonathan Chin  /  Staff writer, with CNA

Sat, Feb 16, 2019 - Page 3

The transition to an all-volunteer military spells an end to alternative medical service, with the last medical mission to depart by the end of the month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said on Tuesday as it highlighted its contributions.

Military-aged men used to be able to apply for alternative service, including the ministry’s public health missions to Pacific nations that are diplomatic allies or friends as part of Taiwan’s diplomatic outreach, it said in a news release.

Programs are running in Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Fiji and Kiribati, the ministry said.

A total of 62 medical workers have provided public health services in Pacific nations through the program, health ministry Office of International Cooperation superintendent Hsu Ming-hui (許明暉) said.

Drawn from among qualified conscripts who opted for alternative service, most of the program’s medical workers were medical students, but licensed doctors were not unheard of, he said.

The health workers received five months of training before spending five months at a post overseas, where they carried out public health-related work to help host nations, he said.

To combat childhood obesity, which is endemic to the region, health workers organized public information campaigns that encouraged children to eat vegetables and held weight-loss competitions at schools, he said.

Program alumnus Lien Chia-en (連加恩) in 2001 attracted attention after he set up a program to hand out Taiwanese second-hand clothes to children who collected waste in Burkina Faso, then a diplomatic ally, and founded a school there, Hsu said.

Through the years, alternative medical service had served the residents of the Pacific nations and demonstrated Taiwan’s goodwill to the global community, he said.

However, cuts to the length of compulsory service as Taiwan transitions to an all-volunteer force — with men born in or after 1994 obliged to attend just four months of military training — have made the program unsustainable, he said.

The four medical workers whom the ministry is to send to the Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Palau would be the program’s last conscripts, he said.

To replace the conscripts, the ministry has made tentative plans to recruit postgraduate medical students from hospitals for overseas service as part of their training, he said.