Health Papua New Guinea


It was election year in 2002 when  campaign efforts were at their peak.  I arrived  at a school in the Tekin Valley in remote Oksapin in the Sandaun province after a 6 hour trek though the jungle.   
The rain had just ended  when I began an interview with a local teacher.    He was one of the few government representatives   in this   very isolated part of Papua New Guinea.  The only government aid post in his village had closed down a few years ago. The orderly left   for  the provincial capital of Vanimo and never returned.   I wanted to know about infant  and maternal mortality rates. At the time  the teacher was the only person available who could give me a fair analysis of the situation.
Funeral gathering – Tekin Valley,  2002
Having come from Port Moresby where one relies on  easily accessible and “reliable” statistics, I got straight into asking   a series of questions trying   to establish the number of mothers and children who had died in the last 1 months. 

“We really don’t know.” He said.  “We only know of those who  died in   this village and the next.” 

He counted three infants and one mother who  died in his village in  that  election month alone.  They all died of complications that could have been solved if they had easy

 access to a sub-health center or even a medical orderly.   The nearest  health center was a day’s walk from where we were. It would take two days   to get there  from the villages I passed.  But for  pockets of  small hamlets  in the far of distance, getting to that health center  when a mother experiencing   birth complications is  an impossible dream.     The teacher couldn’t give me  an exact number of children who  died in the last 12 months or in the  previous year.  But he gave me an educated guess. He said between 15 and 30 babies die every year in this mountainous region. 

Woman and granddaughter – Tekin,  2002

“Too many,”  he said shaking his head. “Too many.”

He went on to  tell me   that  people had  come to accept the deaths of babies  as part of their lives.  In the nearby villages,  many families would gather for the death of a respected elder.   For  a baby who died at birth, only the  father and the mother would  be at the burial. The teacher said  in the small  mountaintop villages,  this was the scenario that  was played out every month when a baby died:  The father would take the tiny body to the back of the hut and bury him or her there.  No one mourned for them.  They were “just” nameless babies who would not even be recorded as statistics because nobody knew.

In the same year, I found myself  in another part of the Sandaun province at a small  government run aid post.   Half the concrete floor had collapsed into the ground. The medicine cabinet had only malarial tablets  and liniment  for body aches.  The medical  orderly told me that a child had died about 24 hours ago  from dehydration.  By the time  he had been brought to the aid post, the orderly could not administer treatment. The child’s father came at the aid post  a few minutes later and was told  by the orderly:  “If you want your son to live,  take him and run to the health center.”  The orderly said he got word in the afternoon that the   father  did make it to health center but the child had already died in his arms.
Broken bridge near Telifomin
The situation  may have already improved in those areas but  in other places, it remains a reality that ordinary Papua New Guineans have to contend with.   What matters most to the ordinary person in the village are  roads, bridges schools,  good health services and most importantly, the ability to make money for himself.   But  it seems we keep getting it wrong  every year!
In 2008,  the Treasury department released  figures in the Final Budget Outcome (FBO)  which showed how much money was being wasted. The 68-page report outlined how the government  more than doubled spending from K202.3 million to K478.5 million in deficit.  The expenses   included car purchases,  a 12 million kina Canberra residence, 100 thousand  kina for pipes and drums for the Correctional Service band and 65 thousand kina  for the Institute of Medical Research’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
In 2009, Members of Parliament  paid themselves K10 million in accommodation and motor vehicle allowances.    One  government backbencher said immediately after the  decision that he would “give  all the allowances back to parliament.”  In contrast, the Public Service Minister, Peter O’Neill said allowances which MPs were getting were “far below what was needed to  meet the amounts charged by real estate companies.”  
The increases  gladly received by MPs  came at a time  when  the Port Moresby General Hospital  and other hospitals around the country were   experiencing a dire shortage of drugs and medical supplies.   It was also a year when  several hundred settlers  were made homeless in Port Moresby  after a police raid.  Also in that year,  working class Papua New Guineans  in towns and cities struggled  with accommodation problems  and  high food costs.
As if all that wasn’t enough,  members of Parliament  have yet again voted this year  to give themselves a 52 percent pay rise. On average each MP will  get about 77 thousand kina a annually.   
All this is set against a  gloomy backdrop   of  high infant mortality rates and new outbreaks of cholera  in several parts of the country.   


  1. My heart breaks to read this…after over 30 years of independence and many higher level educated Papua New Guineans, you'd think by now someone would have done something about maternal and child health in rural PNG…tasol nogat.Sad.


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