It’s the week of Independence.
A young mother, elegantly attired in her PNG meri-blouse, huddles amongst the murmur of other young parents under a tent at the Gerehu Hospital.
With all her attention, she watches the nurse-meri, her eyes trailing every movement of the nurse as she squeezes two drops of a liquid into the pinched mouth of her four year old son.
She exhales in relief knowing that the monster lurking in the dark won’t take her son. At least, not this one.
AS we settle into the days after our 43rd Independence festivities, we will be confronted with the dawning reality that may haunt us more in weeks to come.
No, it’s not APEC 2018. And it’s not the nervous toea-clanking at the bottom of the governments empty purse.
It is something much, much, worse.
It is Poliomyelitis – Polio for short.
18 years after it had been eradicated from PNG, the highly contagious virus has reared its ugly head once again soullessly targeting its favourite demographic – young children – our nations most vulnerable.
There is speculation that this is a mutated strain of the virus, but whatever form it has returned in, it poses a devastating new reality for our country, sending authorities scrambling to vaccinate the population.
Days after the first case was reported back in mid June, travel warnings were issued for PNG residents travelling abroad, and vice versa. Not helping PM O’Neil’s exasperated calls for Australia to cut some slack for Papua New Guinean travellers heading into Australia.
Indeed, our politically elite and frequent international travellers are feeling the pinch of this as they too need to stand before the vaccination drops to grant them access to freedom.
Maybe this is providing the push for our politicians to rally behind this emergency expenditure item.
One can only speculate.
But the monster is picking its steps closer and closer to our nations urban elite.
– Polio is a vengeful foe, seeking atonement for our ignorance.
A week before our 43rd Independence Celebrations, the nations 12th person was diagnosed in Port Moresby. A sombre note to begin the celebrations on and the first major urban case in PNG.
Somewhere along the line, we got complacent. We forgot about it. We fell asleep on watch. We left the cold-chain to thaw. Now twelve Papua New Guineans are paying the highest price for it.
That’s twelve more Papua New Guineans then were necessary.
When it comes to polio, the rule of thumb is a crushing reality. One confirmed case could indicate several hundreds who may have already contracted the virus. In an urban setting this can quickly escalate as the points of transmission are multiplied.
This is why one reported case was enough to warrant an outbreak alert and send the world scurrying to assist PNG in curbing this problem.
But the problem is more nuanced then we might like to admit too.
Since eradicating the virus from PNG in the late 90s, a whole new generation of Papua New Guineans have grown up not knowing about Polio. We stopped talking about it and that was where we failed as a nation.
…For Generation Y Papua New Guineans, like architect Rita Karaie, 27, there isn’t much awareness about the consequences of the disease. “I don’t even know what the symptoms are,” she says, as she lines up for her turn.
Our nations most productive generation is now in the midst of birthing the next generation of Papua New Guineans, not fully grasping the enemy’s second coming.
The fight back is possible however. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.
Re-kindle the cold-chains and send the vaccines where they are needed. On land, over sea and to every child across the nation.
Those foot soldiers from many years past are now some of our nations most senior Public Health Professionals – Generals at the arms to defend our nation against Polio once again.
The daunting question is whether we have the resolve to make up for 18 years worth of oversight in only several months.
War Against Polio
Some Extra Reading On Polio