By Anupama Tantri
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse places on earth, with over 800 languages spoken across the country. Despite its rich heritage and natural resources, many people live in extreme poverty with more than one-third of its 7 million people living below the national poverty line. More than 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and only 33 percent of this rural population have access to a safe water source. Much of the country is only accessible by air and less than 5 percent of roads are usable year round.
In addition to the lack of infrastructure and access, another factor impeding development and growth in Papua New Guinea is the high burden of communicable diseases, particularly neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). NTDs affect the poorest, most neglected populations, particularly those living in remote rural areas. In Papua New Guinea, more than 80 percent of the population is at risk for at least one NTD.
Soil-transmitted helminthes (STH), or intestinal worms, are among the most common NTDs in Papua New Guinea. STH infections cause malnutrition and anemia, can result in adverse pregnancy outcomes such as low birth weight and contribute to poor physical and cognitive development in children. Approximately 2.5 million children in Papua New Guinea require deworming to protect them against STH infections.
Despite its unique challenges, Papua New Guinea has demonstrated success in combating STH infections. In partnership with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Papua New Guinea recently integrated deworming into a supplementary immunization activity (SIA) to boost measles vaccination coverage. The SIA also included vitamin A supplementation and other routine childhood vaccinations.
Through this integrated approach, 73 percent of children received deworming against STH infections and 84 percent received vitamin A supplementation. Additionally, 77 percent of women of child bearing age (15-45 years) were vaccinated with tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccine and received vitamin A and deworming. For measles vaccination, Papua New Guinea achieved a national coverage of 88 percent; a tremendous improvement as compared to measles coverage the previous year which was less than 75 percent.
Papua New Guinea successfully integrated five essential maternal and child health services and demonstrated an increase in coverage in all services. The national, provincial and district level government seized an opportunity to build on an immunization program to deliver an integrated package of services without compromising the success of the immunization program. Papua New Guinea was also able to use the SIA as a vehicle for reaching communities in remote areas that have never been reached by routine health services.