Papua New Guinea: MSF completes emergency cholera intervention

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has completed a seven month-long emergency cholera intervention in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea’s first cholera outbreak in 50 years started in Morobe province in July 2009. In October, cholera was detected in the northern province of Madang, followed by another outbreak in East Sepik, where the disease spread like wildfire in settlements along the Sepik River. As of March 1st, 2109 cases have been confirmed nationwide. 50 people have died.  

MSF was already working in the city of Lae in Morobe province and was able to assist the Ministry of Health immediately in responding to the outbreak. Until the beginning of March, an MSF team set up 12 cholera treatment units, two larger cholera treatment centres and 22 oral rehydration points in the three affected provinces. Much of the time, the team had to travel on small river boats to reach the settlements affected by the disease.

The team also focused on raising community awareness about cholera and provided training in clinical management and infection control to more than a thousand health workers and health volunteers.

“Cholera is easy to avoid and to cure. But it also kills easily if left untreated,” says Dave CROFT, project coordinator of the MSF cholera intervention team. Cholera is a highly infectious disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea, resulting in severe dehydration that can be fatal. The disease is mainly spread through contaminated water or food.

MSF has handed over all cholera units to the Ministry of Health. Dave Croft says the intervention was successful. “It is not an emergency any more. The morbidity and mortality rate in the country has gone down.” But he says that cholera will remain entrenched in the country and the disease is likely to spread further.

The effectiveness of cholera activities in the country is undermined by a number of factors. The health system in Papua New Guinea is inadequate, the water and sanitation structure grossly deficient and the geography of the country complex. Small groups of people live scattered in hard-to-reach, remote villages.

MSF has been working in Papua New Guinea since 2007. In addition to the cholera emergency response, teams provide free medical and psychological care for victims of sexual and domestic violence in Angau Hospital in the city of Lae. This country has one of the world’s highest rates for gender-based violence.

An MSF team is also working in the town of Tari, providing emergency medical and surgical care for victims of violence at the Tari hospital, the only healthcare facility in the mountainous jungle in the western part of the country.