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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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A health crisis on Australia’s doorstep

The lives of two young siblings living in remote Papua New Guinea are at a greater risk than ever before as the COVID-19 crisis pushes the country’s health system to breaking point.

By Rita Mu

Max’s mother Esther watches on with a big smile as Max (above) laughs and claps his hands.

Deep down, though, she is full of worry.

Max is only two years old, but for most of his life he has had recurrent chest infections and a persistent cough.

Esther suspects he might have tuberculosis (TB), an airborne infectious disease that generally affects the lungs. If left untreated, TB can become fatal.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), where Max lives, the disease is endemic and a leading cause of death.

Esther’s daughter – 12-year-old Ruth – was a diagnosed with TB last year.
A ChildFund staff member noticed her glands were significantly swollen and referred her to a doctor.
Ruth was prescribed a nine-month treatment plan.
She spent most of 2020 battling the disease.
In November 2020, Ruth finished her treatment.
Fortunately, she has since made a full recovery.
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When children like Ruth and Max become seriously ill, they must travel to PNG’s capital city of Port Moresby – several hours away by foot and public transport – for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

It is a long and costly trip for a family like Ruth and Max’s living in extreme poverty.

They live on a bamboo platform with no walls and a thatched roof.
Esther relies on the sales of coconuts, which she finds around the family home, to support Max and Ruth.
The family’s income is sporadic and unreliable, and pays for essentials such as medicine but little else.
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For children like Ruth and Max living in poor, remote communities in PNG, contracting a life-threatening infectious disease is a risk they face every day.

Good hygiene and sanitation facilities are few and far between.

And local health facilities are almost always understaffed and under-resourced.

With COVID-19 sweeping through PNG and the country’s health system at breaking point, accessing basic health services for children like Max and Ruth is more difficult than ever.

Will you please help protect children during the COVID-19 crisis and ensure they can continue the treatment they need when they are sick?

Yes, I will donate now.

The devastating impact of COVID-19

The recent COVID-19 crisis in PNG has put the lives of children like Max and Ruth in serious danger.

Papua New Guinea’s already fragile health system is now at breaking point. Hospitals and health clinics are overwhelmed by the huge numbers of COVID-19 patients, and many are no longer able to provide essential health care and services.

Children and families living in remote communities have been turned away from their local clinics because facilities have been converted to spaces for testing and treating COVID-19 patients.

While many lives in PNG have already been lost to COVID-19, many more could be lost because everyday health services are no longer available.

In March this year ChildFund PNG's health team visited Max and Ruth to see how they were doing.
They are both well and happy.
But Esther is worried.
She fears Max and Ruth will contract COVID-19.
She knows they are vulnerable.
ChildFund is providing essential health information to Esther’s local community, and other rural villages.
This ensures families understand how they can protect themselves through good hygiene and sanitation practices.
Community health volunteers trained by ChildFund are also setting up simple, affordable hand-washing facilities called tippy taps in home and rural health facilities.
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ChildFund is also operating outreach clinics in Central Province to provide children and their families with TB/HIV/malaria screening, vaccines, antenatal care, family planning advice, growth monitoring, health promotion, and other priority health services.

These outreach clinics are organised and run by health professionals and local community health volunteers, who are trained by ChildFund.

They are helping to save the lives of some of PNG’s poorest children and families, and have been critical during the COVID-19 crisis to help ensure children like Ruth and Max continue to get the essential medical care they need while hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed.

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A long road to recovery

The lives of two young siblings living in remote Papua New Guinea are at a greater risk than ever before as the COVID-19 crisis pushes the country’s health system to breaking point.

By Rita Mu

Max’s mother Esther watches on with a big smile as Max (above) laughs and claps his hands.

Deep down, though, she is full of worry.

Max is only two years old, but for most of his life he has had recurrent chest infections and a persistent cough.

Esther suspects he might have tuberculosis (TB), an airborne infectious disease that generally affects the lungs. If left untreated, TB can become fatal.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), where Max lives, the disease is endemic and a leading cause of death.

This is where Jenny spends her time. She loves to play elastics and “jingle jangle” with her friends.
Jenny is cheeky and fun-loving.
When she grows up she wants to be a pilot.
“I want to fly to Australia to visit my aunt,” Jenny says.
She is full of energy and has so much determination.
But for children like Jenny in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the odds are against them.
Jenny is one of many children in PNG who face the threat of life-threatening infectious diseases every day.
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A country no stranger to outbreaks

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.

In March this year ChildFund PNG's health team visited Max and Ruth to see how they were doing.
They are both well and happy.
But Esther is worried.
She fears Max and Ruth will contract COVID-19.
She knows they are vulnerable.
ChildFund is providing essential health information to Esther’s local community, and other rural villages.
This ensures families understand how they can protect themselves through good hygiene and sanitation practices.
Community health volunteers trained by ChildFund are also setting up simple, affordable hand-washing facilities called tippy taps in home and rural health facilities.
?>

ChildFund is also operating outreach clinics in Central Province to provide children and their families with TB/HIV/malaria screening, vaccines, antenatal care, family planning advice, growth monitoring, health promotion, and other priority health services.

These outreach clinics are organised and run by health professionals and local community health volunteers, who are trained by ChildFund.

They are helping to save the lives of some of PNG’s poorest children and families, and have been critical during the COVID-19 crisis to help ensure children like Ruth and Max continue to get the essential medical care they need while hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed.

These figures may not even paint the full picture.
Many children with TB do not appear in the statistics because they are never diagnosed.
“I am worried I will lose one of my children,” Mary told ChildFund in 2020 after Jenny was diagnosed with TB.
“In PNG everybody dies with all kinds of diseases. Every day someone dies.
“If you have money people might see you, but if you don’t have money then you have to go to the back of the line.”
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Neighbouring countries, worlds apart

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 COVID-19 sweeping through PNG and the country’s health system at breaking point, accessing basic health services for children like Jenny is more difficult than ever.

Will you please help protect children during the COVID-19 crisis and ensure they can continue the treatment they need when they are sick?

Yes, I will donate now.

The devastating impact of COVID-19

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.

In March 2021 – as the COVID-19 crisis in PNG began to peak – ChildFund staff member Olive visited Jenny in Port Moresby.
“The TB Treatment supporter played a vital role in ensuring Jenny's treatment was not interrupted,” Jenny's mother Mary told Olive.
Jenny has now fully recovered from TB and is doing well.
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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.

Please donate now