Papua New Guinea's Fight Against Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

With one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) rates in the world, Papua New Guinea’s TB pandemic is referred to by national health authorities as an “emergency”. With approximately 30,000 newly-infected with the TB bacteria every year, increasing incidences of drug-resistant strains and limited access to adequate healthcare, the nation has seen a recent resurgence of support from international governments and medical humanitarian agencies.

TB is a communicable, airborne infection that is caused by the bacteria Mmycobacterium tuberculosis. It can lie dormant within the body for many years. However, for those with compromised immunity, TB develops into a disease that destructs organ tissue, most commonly in the lungs and kidneys. It presents symptomatically as a fever-like condition and can be fatal if left untreated.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the global fatality rate for TB was greatly reduced through the administration of rigorous antibiotic treatment. However, the development of antibiotic resistance has instigated two aggressive strains of the disease. The increased incidence of both Multidrug-Resistant TB and Extensively Drug Resistant TB in PNG has occurred at an alarming rate. This drug resistance eradicates a response to the most effective TB medication. Thus, patients are left with a more severe strain of infection and less effective treatment options.

According to the PNG Institute for Medical Research, many remotely-situated TB sufferers die of TB without even receiving a formal diagnosis. Furthermore, only 50% of those infected with TB have access to “adequate treatment”. This is problematic as TB convalescence can require a daily regimen of injections, oral medication and supervised medical care for anywhere between six and twenty-four months. Inconsistent treatment can not only increase the disease’s severity but also strengthen the infection’s resistance to treatment options.

Government commitment is vital for the minimisation of this issue. The World Health Organisation has urged the PNG government to maintain a sense of urgency in their emergency response efforts. Additionally, the Australian government is monitoring the distribution of sixty million dollars in aid targeted at the TB response over the next six years. On World Tuberculosis Day 2015, the PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, thanked the Australian government for its ongoing support. He also urged the nation to encourage patients to finish their full course of drug treatment in an effort to combat the drug-resistant strains.

Moreover, international non-government organisations continue to support the TB response, sending medical professionals to meet the demand for care and assisting with the development of health facilitates. More recently, Médecins Sans Frontières imported an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to deliver saliva samples from inaccessible rural areas to metropolitan hospitals. This has improved rates of patient diagnosis in remote regions. In order to assess the current management strategies for drug-resistant strains, representatives from the PNG Health Department and World Health Organisation visited the Western Province last week.

With one of the highest TB rates in the Asia-Pacific region, PNG’s TB public health education and treatment services must be prioritised by the international community, PNG government and community health workers. More must be done multilaterally to curb the recent escalation of drug-resistant cases.

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