Monday, September 19, 2016

Battling TB on the frontline in PNG

By Larissa Tuohy, Communications Manager, ChildFund Australia

For Papua New Guinean health worker Celestine I’Ova, tackling the tuberculosis (TB) epidemic in her country has become somewhat of a personal crusade, after losing both of her parents to TB and contracting the disease herself.

More than 9,000 people have died from TB in PNG over the past three years – including hundreds of children – and it is people like Celestine working on the frontline who urgently need support to tackle this terrible but treatable disease.

“I always wanted to help sick people get better, but I never wanted to work with TB patients. I was afraid I would catch it,” says Celestine.  Celestine is a health worker at a small rural clinic in Papua New Guinea’s Central Province.

The clinic is a basic shack, typical of many across PNG. There are just six staff to provide support for around 15,000 people, some of them travelling six hours by boat for medical attention.

Despite having over 20 years of frontline experience as a community health worker, TB has always held a particular terror for Celestine. Both of her parents died from the disease, and she admits avoiding TB patients for years afterwards.

“I did not want to learn how to treat TB patients,” she says. “Also, with the deteriorating health facilities and lack of resources at our health centre, I felt it was not safe for us. When TB patients came, I never stood in front of them or spoke to them; I always moved away from the patients.”

In PNG, however, TB is a growing epidemic. Over the past three years, it has killed 9,000 people in the Pacific island nation, with children particularly susceptible to the most disabling forms of the disease. By comparison, the Ebola virus, which galvanised such international fear and concern, killed 11,300 people globally in the same period.

ChildFund Australia – which has launched a report on the TB epidemic and its devastating impact on children – has been working in Papua New Guinea for the past 20 years, stepping up efforts to reduce the spread of TB since 2013.

“Tuberculosis is an entirely preventable and curable disease,” says ChildFund Australia CEO Nigel Spence. “It is absolutely critical that health workers in rural areas have the right tools and knowledge to prevent and treat the disease, and to raise awareness about the importance of early medical intervention.”

ChildFund is among several organisations playing a critical role in training and equipping health workers to detect TB early and ensure patients complete their full course of treatment.