PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Cholera outbreak slows

BANGKOK, 15 April 2010 – A serious outbreak of cholera in Papua New Guinea (PNG) which has killed nearly 60 people shows signs of subsiding, government health officials say.

“The situation has improved in recent weeks,” Victor Golpak, the government’s national response coordinator for cholera, told IRIN from Port Moresby.

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According to the country’s National Department of Health, close to 3,000 cases have been reported in the Pacific island nation since August, with the vast majority at the onset of the outbreak.

Of these, 766 were reported in Morabe Province, 1,324 in Madang Province, and 813 in East Sepik Province.

Two were reported in the Eastern Highlands Province, as well as one from Vanimo, the provincial capital of Sundaun Province, and another from the country’s national capital district.

A total of 59 deaths have been confirmed.

National response team

Following the first case in Morabe, the health department established a national response team, supported by the National Disaster Response Centre, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international partners.

The disease was later detected in Madang in October, followed by another outbreak in East Sepik in November, with many health experts warning of a much wider spread.

“That didn’t happen because of resource mobilization and awareness activities,” Golpak said, citing support from the UN, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam, World Vision and others.

“Their assistance was vital,” he said.

A greater awareness of hygiene practices, including hand washing, has all had an effect, he added.

Scaling back

In response, the government has begun scaling back its activities in some areas.

“I think we are coming to an end to the outbreak,” said Sibauk Bieb, the operations coordinator for the government’s cholera task force in Madang.

“We are only getting one or two patients a week. At the moment, we don’t have a single patient at our centre,” he added, predicting they would wind up their activities soon.

But while the numbers have improved, the underlying causes in terms of water and sanitation have not.

“We cannot afford to be complacent. Cholera remains a source of concern and the risk of another outbreak is very real,” said Hernan del Valle, MSF’s head of mission in Port Moresby, stressing the need for greater preparedness, as well as government investment in water and sanitation.

Cholera, an acute intestinal infection, is fuelled largely by poor sanitation practices and inadequate access to safe drinking water.

About 58 percent of PNG’s six million inhabitants lack access to safe drinking water, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) says.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]