Stories

It is deeply unjust that in a country just 160 kilometres off Australia’s coastline, women and their babies lose their lives during childbirth, in terrible conditions and from causes that are completely preventable.

Yet this is the daily reality in Papua New Guinea (PNG), particularly for the 85 per cent of the population that live in rural and remote areas.

No woman should die giving life. Nor should any woman see the child she has carried for nine months pass away because she could not get the help she needed while giving birth.

The conditions in which women in PNG give birth would shock many Australians. Rural health clinics, where they exist, are rudimentary and lack even the most basic equipment.

Staff are often under-trained, and few in number – unable to cope with the vast health needs of impoverished communities. Doctors are in scarce supply. For many women in Central Province, where ChildFund works, the closest doctor is a four-hour drive away.

Due to this dire lack in health infrastructure, most women have no choice but to give birth at home, and rely on traditional birth attendants to assist them.

The latter are without resources, and use whatever tools they have available. These may include sharpened bamboo to cut the umbilical cord, a used produce sack for the mother to lie on, and plastic bags instead of gloves.

A life-threatening disease like malaria can kill people of any age. Helena, aged 57, from Timor-Leste knows this only too well.

After feeling pain and suffering from high fevers for three days straight, Helena was worried that she might have contracted the disease. “My whole body was weak, I had a headache and couldn’t even taste food because it was so bitter. I thought these might be signs of malaria,” she says.

A visit to a doctor in the capital of Dili confirmed her fears. “The doctor gave me a medicine to drink then two days later, I felt a little bit better. I could go out for a walk and look after my house.”

According to the World Health Organisation, Timor-Leste has made huge strides in the prevention and control of malaria. Over the last decade, the number of malaria cases has dropped from 220 for every 1,000 people to fewer than 1 case per 1,000.

This massive fall in infection rates has largely been due to improved diagnostics, political commitment from the Timorese government, and support from organisations like ChildFund Timor-Leste  and the Global Fund to Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.