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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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Tiny one-year-old Max has been sick since he was just one month old.

“He is always sick,” his mother Esther says. “He is small. He can’t get rid of the cough.

“All I want is for my son to be better.”

Esther and her family live three hours from Port Moresby in a tiny village that is an 8km walk from the closest health centre.

She has made the long trek to Port Moresby with Max ten times in his short life, determined to get him the help he needs.

He has been treated with course after course of antibiotics, but his little body is still wracked with coughs and he’s wasting away before his mother’s eyes.

Without urgent treatment, his life hangs in the balance.

Like her little brother, eleven-year-old Ruth is small for her age. She is starting to show all the signs of TB.

Since Max fell ill, Ruth has missed school again and again.

“When my brother is sick my mother has to take him to Port Moresby. There’s no one to look after me so I go to my grandmother’s house and I don’t go to school.”

Now, Ruth is sick too, with the enlarged lymph nodes and cough that are sure signs of TB.

Unless she receives treatment quickly, Ruth faces months of debilitating illness, more disruption to her education, and the risk of life-long disability – or even death.

Like any mum, Esther’s love for her children knows no bounds. She’s desperate to help her children get well.

Walking for hours over rough ground to reach the nearest health centre, carrying a sick baby. Collecting coconuts for days on end, to sell for the bus fare to Port Moresby. Taking trip after trip to the distant city, separated from her husband and daughter while she tries to get treatment that will stop her baby coughing.

Esther will never stop fighting to save her children’s lives, but unless she can access the healthcare they need, her fierce determination may not be enough – and during this COVID-19 pandemic, her children are at greater risk than ever.

Almost 90% of the population in PNG lives in remote areas where they have trouble accessing health care.

Parents like Esther face overwhelming challenges in trying to protect their children from infectious disease, including:

  • Lack of access to medical care. Even where there is a health facility within walking distance, facilities and services are often extremely basic and vaccines or medicine may not be available.
  • The cost of travelling to seek medical care. Many families like Esther’s do not have their own transport – and time away from home often means lost income and extra expenses they simply cannot afford.

Will you help mums like Esther protect their children from infectious disease?

Your gift today could help provide life-saving health care to children like Ruth and Max.

Daniel was 13 years old, had lost half his body weight and could not go to school as he battled a hard-to-detect form of tuberculosis for six months.  

His mother Olive, ChildFund Papua New Guinea’s Head of Health Programs, was worried whether he would survive. For a long time, she did not know it was tuberculosis. 

“He just lost a lot of weight,” Olive said. “You wouldn’t think it was him. And many of his friends couldn’t recognise him. He couldn’t go to school because of his sickness and he was not the normal active boy he was.  

“I think it was really hard for him in terms of his education and it was hard for me and my family to Daniel did not show the most common symptoms of tuberculosis, such as a persistent cough or shortness of breath. This made it hard for Olive to get a diagnosis for her son’s ongoing health issues.“First, he started complaining about having constant abdominal pains and then he started gradually losing weight,” she said. 

“Because he was a child I was treating him for worms. I thought that was causing it.” 

Tuberculosis is treatable and preventable, but it still the leading cause of infectious death worldwide. Although the disease has been all-but eradicated in most rich countries it continuous to wreak havoc in many of the world’s poorest countries. 

A reason the disease does so much damage is that many forms of tuberculosis are difficult to detect and can cause serious effects before being treated. 

Olive (pictured below) has studied public health and is a qualified health extension officer. At the time Daniel got sick, she was working on a malaria project. Throughout her career she has seen children battling many diseases, but even she was stumped by the cause of her son’s illness. 

Olve Ha, Head of Health Program in ChildFund Papua New Guinea

As Daniel’s condition worsened, she began to suspect he had tuberculosis. She had him do a test in Port Moresby, but they never got the results. A doctor prescribed him antibiotics but his condition continued to deteriorate. 

“I asked the doctor to have a look at him and then she was trying to prescribe the same drugs again so I was not happy,” Olive said. 

“I asked her if there was any other treatment or if there’s any other examinations they could do. She wasn’t in favour of what I was suggesting and we had a bit of disagreement. So I asked her if he could go for a scan: a chest X-ray or abdominal X-ray.  

“On that same day that I requested the ultrasound scan it was discovered that he had abdominal tuberculosis.” 

Like most tuberculosis patients, Daniel noticed an improvement as soon as he started treatment. If tuberculosis had not been confirmed, his fate could have been much worse. 

Between 2008 and 2018, more than 58 million lives were saved through tuberculosis diagnosis and treatment, but the disease still kills more than 1 million people each year because they cannot get diagnosed and treated. 

Children can be particularly tough to treat and diagnose. Papua New Guinea has one of the world’s highest rates of tuberculosis making children particularly vulnerable

family in papua new guinea
Daniel (right) and Olive’s other children, Adrian and Rachael are now happy and healthy

As someone with a health education and full-time employment, Olive had the knowledge and resources to save her son. However this is not the case for many parents in Papua New Guinea. Her son is now a healthy 24-year-old but his battle with tuberculosis has had a lasting impact on his mother. 

Since joining ChildFund Papua New Guinea eight years ago Olive has made it a priority to help eradicate tuberculosis. The health programs Olive oversees help train health workers and parents in remote villages to fight tuberculosis in their communities

She also oversees teams of village health volunteers and tuberculosis treatment supporters who ensure patients follow their treatment plans to stop the spread of drug-resistant strains of the disease. 

Heather helped Mamopi's parents idenitify that he had tuberculosis, which allowed him to return to school
ChildFund’s health programs are helping put an end to tuberculosis in PNG.

“Being a health worker, I knew about tuberculosis,” Olive said. “I learned about it when I was back at school but the personal experience I had gave me the passion to do more work in this area. So when I had the opportunity I just went for it and I committed all my time trying to do tuberculosis treatment and prevention work.  

“You could see a child or someone being cured from the work you do. If you do the work properly, people will not be infected, nor will their lives be affected.”