Daru Island is off the south west coast of the mainland in Western Province. It is not that far from the border with Papua (Indonesia) but even closer to the border with Australia. This is why the recent outbreak of cholera there has been a bit of worry for the Australian government.
AusAID has been working with the PNG government and The World Health Organisation (WHO), sending in regular plane-loads of supplies for about the last 10 days.
As a doctor explained to me yesterday, cholera is a pretty nasty bacteria. It is not something which just sits in the stomach pressing the “evacuate now” button, which would be bad enough. It actually embeds itself in the lining of the stomach and starts to draw fluids from throughout the body. Basically, the victims die of dehydration.
The up side is that the treatment is pretty simple – rehydrate. Or it would be simple if you lived somewhere with a good water supply, good sanitation, and an understanding of what cholera was all about. Daru had none of this. The supplies from AusAID, WHO and the PNG government have helped – water containers, oral rehydration salts, IV fluid, purification tablets, and chlorine to help with the sewage treatment.
I flew down there yesterday morning to accompany some media. We’ve had AusAID people rotating through there over the last 10 days so I had an idea what it would be like. The good news is that the cholera outbreak seems to be subsiding on Daru Island itself, although the mainland of Western Province, which is very inaccessible, is more of an unknown. About 50km east of Daru is the mouth of the Fly River, which stretches north up towards the highlands, and the refugee camps on the PNG side of the border with Indonesia. It would be a real worry if things got out of control with cholera up that way.
A river on the north of Daru: the sky was a bit grey but as the pilot told me, the weather down here is not as critical for flying as it is in the highlands.
Supplies included water containers, ORS (oral rehydration salts), IV fluid and purification tablets. The locals turned out in force to unload the plane, even offering their sometimes worse-for-wear vehicles as transport.
We visited the hospital and the command centre, then set off for one of the local villages, Giwari. There is a lot of movement between islands and the mainland, as well as throughout the Torres Strait, and the communities on Daru are divided along village and tribal lines from the mainland and beyond. So there is a Giwari village on the mainland, and the people in Giwari settlement on Daru are all connected to that village.
Giwari is one of the worst hit areas for cholera. They’ve had around 1o deaths. Living conditions were pretty grim. They have community taps connected to mains water but water quality is uncertain. They did have pit toilets, but they don’t use them any more. They dump all waste, human and otherwise, into the ocean, which can then wash back into the village. There are no community toilets and there is a lot of stigma around not being seen going to the toilet, especially for the women. So basically, the women try not to drink during the day, so they don’t have to urinate. But when the basic treatment for cholera is to keep drinking, you can imagine how that impacts on the community.
We have set up ORS stations in places like Giwari so there is easy access to the basic treatments. On my flight, we had some little marquees, to give the stations a bit more of a presence. Setting up this one was like entertainment for the villagers. And then there were a few speeches and thankyous – no sing-sing this time! I couldn’t help feeling that apart from medicine and information, we also served to break the monotony – a group of white people with cameras visiting their village was a bit of an event for Giwari.
These boys weren’t quite sure what to make of all the fuss.
This old guy look just as perplexed.
One of the local men, Kevin, has been fantastic in communicating to his people about how to control the spread of cholera. Kevin is not a tribal leader or a community leader – he just basically volunteered to help out because he has kids and grandkids growing up here and he wants to protect them. He has the gift of the gab and was very good at getting the message out about basic things, like washing your hands.
Of course, for some kids no amount of white people could keep them from their games.
And others had work to do. Kevin told me this guy was renowned as an excellent mender of nets.
The people of Giwari were very friendly. They love seeing the photos of themselves. It always causes fits of giggles. I am not quite sure what they thought of me wanting to be in the photo – some odd looks in there – but generally they were pretty happy.
As we waited to board the plane on the way out, a local Obama fan walked past. He told us that PNG needed someone like Obama to save them.