Supporting community health in Papua New Guinea

June 21, 2019
Texas Children's Hospital
PHOTO: Getty Images

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most diverse countries in the world - geographically, linguistically and culturally. A burden the people of PNG continually face is that of infectious diseases, with tuberculosis, malaria and others causing 62% of deaths nationwide.

As part of our dedication to sharing our expertise and best practices around the world, and to help address the national-level pediatric, maternal and public health capacity in PNG, our team sought to create a program that would improve one of the most valuable resources in the country: PNG’s health care professionals.

With funding and facilitation support from ExxonMobil PNG, the PNG National Department of Health and the University of PNG’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (UPNG-SMHS), we worked together to establish a multi-year public-private partnership to do just that.

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Through a comprehensive needs assessment, we identified gaps in the community health system relating to maternal and child health. The goal of this effort is to increase the quality and availability of the SMHS faculty, assist in efforts to strengthen research and improve patient care.

Some key issues we are helping move the needle on are directly related to the emerging crisis of malnutrition and pediatric tuberculosis in PNG. Since 2014, a team of experienced international health experts and specialists were integrated into the UPNG-SMHS, while simultaneously providing care directly to local and area hospitals.

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Tuberculosis

PNG has the 10th highest incidence of TB in the world. The management of TB, including multidrug-resistant cases (MDR-TB), is particularly challenging in a setting with limited health services. Together with Baylor College of Medicine, we directly supported a locally-led initiative to introduce a new child-friendly TB medication. PNG is the fourth country in the world to do so. With this improvement, not only has the quality of care for children with TB enhanced, but also the management of the children’s MDR-TB ward.

Fighting child malnutrition

Malnutrition is one of the silent killers of children in PNG. Through comprehensive interventions such as malnutrition screening for children, staff training, implementation of malnutrition guidelines and direct daily clinical supervision of patients, the partnership helped improve clinical outcomes and survival rates. In close collaboration with other stakeholders, such as the PNG Paediatric Society, UNICEF and the PNG National Department of Health, the malnutrition program expanded throughout the country, offering onsite malnutrition workshops for health care workers and ongoing support to selected high burden rural hospitals.

Support to public health, medical education and capacity building

Our team delivered hundreds of hours of lectures, facilitated numerous mentoring projects and added a Master’s in Public Health Program and a Diploma of Public Health Program, which provides valuable learning opportunities and support for students. Doing so helps build the next generation of health care workers in PNG.

While there are many longstanding health programs established in PNG, few have sought to engage in the core area of medical education at PNG’s only medical school. In doing so, our partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Texas Children’s Hospital (BIPAI) will leave a lasting impact, as future PNG health workers will ultimately shape health care and public health policies in the country for years to come.

Post by:

Henry Welch, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Texas Children's Global Tuberculosis Program