Four specially crafted boats are heading from Australia’s north-east coast to Papua New Guinea as part of a program to help stop the spread of tuberculosis in the country.
Once they arrive, the boats will be used to carry stretchers, medical supplies, staff and patients from outer islands in PNG’s Western Province to the mainland.
The boats are part of a range of programs set up by the Australian Government, local organisations and the Cairns Reef and Rainforest Research Centre to tackle the growing problem of multi-drug resistant TB.
Cairns Reef and Rainforest Research Centre managing director Sheriden Morris said a lack of adequate services in PNG made it hard for locals to respond to the disease.
“When you see all the infrastructure declining, when you see the community services declining, you know something has to be done,” she told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat.
As part of the program, 40 community rangers were selected by village elders in the country’s Western Province for training.
Ms Morris said the program aimed to build the ability of locals to deal with the disease.
“It’s to build resilience in those communities,” she said.
“We utilise the skills that are in the region, utilise the expertise in the region, to actually look at how we can improve things.
“Part of the problem we’ve had is that, a lot of the time, the aid and support that comes to these regions really lacks the local experience and local knowledge.”
Local health services struggling to cope
Ms Morris said even local health services were finding it difficult to control the disease.
She said on a recent visit this month, nurses at the Daru hospital went on strike because they said they could no longer cope with the TB levels.
“When the hospital can’t cope anymore, when the communities can’t cope, we need to be looking at ways to be building those communities back up so they can manage.”
She said it was difficult to see an area so close to Australia struggling to cope with TB.
“There is not one family I work with now across all the villages that isn’t impacted by TB and multi-drug resistant TB,” she said.
“There are also a lot of other diseases. There’s a lot of leprosy, there’s been a big outbreak of cholera previously.
“This is an area that is really suffering and it’s so close – it is our border. And we do interact daily –there’s 50,000-odd border crossings a year between people.
“So it is a really distressing scene.”
Ms Morris said the boats that will help service the islands in the region have been designed for the conditions there.
“The boats themselves are actual fishing boats that are designed specifically for the conditions and the awful choppy seas we have in the Torres Strait. So they’re very fit for purpose,” she said.
“They’re also designed to be self-rescuing, so you can sail them if you run out of fuel. They’re very fuel efficient and they have low draughts so they can get into all the villages very easily and they can’t sink.
“They’re very well suited to the rough and remote conditions we have up in those areas.”