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A young girl’s battle against an infectious disease shows how support from everyday Australians can help save the lives of vulnerable children as the COVID-19 crisis in Papua New Guinea escalates.
By Rita Mu
Seven-year-old Jenny lives in Papua New Guinea’s sprawling capital city of Port Moresby.
She lives with her mother Mary and older sister Princess in a poor residential street. Their home is made from the bare bones of a building that was burnt down several years ago.
The family’s backyard is the site of a wreckage of an old car.
When ChildFund first met Jenny in early 2020, COVID-19 was still very much unheard of in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The country was still reeling from an outbreak of polio – 18 years after it was eliminated – and dealing with sporadic outbreaks of measles, a frighteningly regular occurrence in Pacific Island nations.
Many children and families were also battling tuberculosis (TB), an airborne bacterial disease that is endemic in PNG.
Jenny was diagnosed with TB in 2020.
“I didn’t think it was TB because she was very active,” says Jenny’s mother Mary. “I know that children with TB are usually weak, so I didn’t think Jenny was sick.
“I was losing sleep when my oldest daughter Princess was diagnosed with TB. She was only six months old. She lost a lot of weight. I was scared. I feared she might die.”
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that generally attacks the lungs. Common symptoms include a persistent cough, chest pains, a fever, fatigue and weight loss. If left untreated, TB can be life-threatening.
Patients are generally prescribed a six to nine-month course of antibiotics. When they do not complete their full course of medication, it can lead to the development of drug-resistant forms of TB. These more virulent forms of the disease require a long and expensive treatment program. Patients are typically on a drug regime for a two-year period; in this case the chance of recovering from the disease is only 50%.
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, about 160km from our coastline, but the two countries could not be further apart when it comes to healthcare.
There is 1 doctor per 10,000 people in PNG, compared with 37 doctors per 10,000 people in Australia.
Unlike in Australia, many children in PNG are malnourished and under-vaccinated, making them particularly susceptible to deadly diseases.
Children in PNG are more than 12 times less likely to reach their 5th birthday than children in Australia.
For children like Jenny, the odds are against them.
With the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in PNG since mid-February 2021, the country’s already fragile health system has been placed under enormous pressure. With large numbers of health workers and patients diagnosed with the virus, hospitals across the country have been forced to shut wards and departments, leaving children like Jenny and their families without access to essential healthcare services.
The past year has been incredibly tough for Jenny and her family. Because of lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the clinic that Jenny was attending was closed and she almost did not complete her six-month course of antibiotics.
A TB Treatment Supporter trained by ChildFund was able to get Jenny’s medicine to her.
Tuberculosis Treatment Supporters are community-based health volunteers who are trained and supported by ChildFund to identify the symptoms of TB and ensure children like Jenny complete their full course of medication. These health volunteers are critical to helping patients living in poor communities fully recover from TB and prevent the spread of more virulent forms of the disease.
Tens of thousands of people in PNG have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 since February 2021.
Families living in poverty like Jenny’s are particularly vulnerable.
Jenny and her family do not have access to the internet, phones or a television, and have been getting their information about the disease from people around them. This information has not always been accurate.
ChildFund is working with government ministries, schools and health authorities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in PNG, by ramping up the efforts of community health volunteers, educating children and families about the disease, and raising awareness about good hygiene and sanitation practices.
While Jenny survived TB, there are still many children who are seriously ill and facing infectious diseases, and who are struggling to access the healthcare they need because hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.