SCI Addresses Symposium on Maritime Health

Sep 14, 2011

by the Rev. David M. Rider, President & Executive Director

During the first full week of September, the Director of SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights and I represented the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) as delegates to the 11th International Symposium on Maritime Health in Odessa, Ukraine.

The 4-day meeting brought together some 200 maritime health professionals from 42 countries to discuss the unique challenges of seafarer medical care while at sea and visiting ports around the world. Presentations covered a wide array of topics, including emergencies aboard ships, vessel sanitation, health counseling, cardiac and infectious disease, and mental health for seafarers from many cultural traditions. Like any good symposium, informal conversations allowed ample networking and exchange of ideas.

A special session addressed the unique medical and mental health challenges of seafarers affected by piracy. With hostage situations lasting an average of six months and, in an extreme case, 16 months, seafarers run out of prescription medications, endure poor nutrition and sanitation, and, of course, cope with extreme stress like mock executions and isolation from other crew.

I was privileged to introduce SCI’s revised Post-Piracy Care for Seafarers Guidelines (version 3.0), addressing the medical and mental health support of seafarers and their families before, during and after hijacking episodes. I challenged physicians to consider the medical dilemmas of confidentiality and coordination of care when seafarers access treatment after returning home. Seafarers have communicated a fear of being labeled as “damaged goods” and later facing discrimination when returning to work after and attack. Ship physicians play a unique role providing initial medical and mental health triage to liberated crews, creating medical action plans for repatriated seafarers and confirming their access to care 20 or 30 days after they return home. Separating treatment providers from those conducting eventual fitness evaluations protects seafarer privacy and encourages access to medical treatment.

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of our Center for Seafarers’ Rights—particularly Director Douglas B. Stevenson and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Garfinkle—SCI brings thought leadership on these treatment issues to the maritime medical community, who are still developing treatment guidelines and basic physician training.

SCI has launched a carefully crafted psychological study in consultation with the Disaster Psychiatry Outreach program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and its internal medical review board. We have interviewed some 100 seafarers in person, by phone or Skype, and we hope to double that number soon. The maritime health symposium meets again in two years, and SCI plans to present the first ever empirical study on the impact of piracy on seafarer mental health at that forum.