Well, I have a lot to tell you. A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Papua New Guinea, a country I was only dimly aware of until recently.
You can see a gallery of photos from the trip here (taken by the extraordinary Conor Ashleigh who is only 22 and a photographic genius).
I went to PNG in my capacity as ambassador for Vicks’ Road To Relief program which works like this: you buy any Vicks product marked “road to relief” and your purchase will pay for one child in a developing country to be immunised against measles.
It’s that simple.
I will admit I was apprehensive about the idea of going on this trip. I don’t like to fly. I don’t like to travel. I don’t like to do new and adventurous things. And I’m a complete wuss-bag about children doing it tough or being in any kind of distress. I can’t bear even the thought of it and I turn into a puddle.
But that’s a totally pampered and privileged view. You can’t be an ostrich forever and I wanted to push out of my comfort zone and learn a thing or two about a country that is just a couple of hours from our own. It was an amazing few days. Amazing. I travelled there with Jolie from Vicks, Catriona from UNICEF (who are managing the distribution of the immunisations in PNG and other developing countries), photographer Conor and videographer Tara.
We were a tight team and we saw some wonderful and upsetting things together. Everyone who heard I was going to PNG raised their eyebrows into their hairline. “It’s sooo dangerous,” they exclaimed. “Be careful.” In Port Moresby, where we were staying, we had armed guards and weren’t allowed to leave our hotel. But on the first two days, we climbed into our mini bus and drove about 90 minutes out of Port Moresby to the province of Kwikila where we visited a health clinic, a mobile immunisation clinic and a school.
Here is a video overview of the trip and the Vicks Road To Relief program…..
And this is a feature I wrote about our trip to the health clinic…..
Tiny twins Lucy and Christina were only eight weeks old when they started coughing. And they couldn’t stop. Quickly, they became sicker with high fevers and wheezing as they struggled to breathe. In the middle of the night, in their remote village with the nearest hospital almost two hours away, their parents were terrified and desperate.
Without ambulances or even transport, they were forced to wait until morning when they could send word to the local health clinic at Kwikila. A ute was immediately sent to fetch the girls and their mother Geue. The diagnosis was pneumonia and while Lucy was stabilised, Christina was transported to hospital in Port Moresby.
But this story turns out well. When I meet the girls seven months later, they’re all shy smiles and big brown eyes, peering at me curiously from their mother’s lap as they wait in the line to be immunised for measles. I’m in Saroakeina, a tiny remote village in Papua New Guinea as an ambassador for Vicks Road To Relief immunisation program.
Around 200 local babies and toddlers have been brought by their mothers to the mobile clinic for measles immunisations and it’s quite the sight. Clinic is a bit fancy a term for what it is: four nurses who brought the vaccines in cold eskies and set up a makeshift medical area under some trees. But there are no complaints. The mothers are grateful to be here because they know this immunisation could save their children’s lives. Pneumonia (as one of measles’ most common complications) kills almost 2 million children under 5 worldwide each year.
Christina and Lucy were lucky and their mother knows it, holding them close as they wait their turn. The atmosphere is relaxed and social with kids running around and the women chatting while they sit on the ground breastfeeding babies and trying to amuse nervous toddlers who have sussed out what’s going on and have begun to cry.
The older children happily play with rocks and sticks and each other and I think of the mountains of toys my own kids have. I’m glad I stole some before I left. The wide eyes when I hand out a knick-knack that came in a cereal box or a showbag breaks my heart a little bit. Earlier that morning, we’d been to the nearby Kwikila Health Centre whose name also belies the reality of the conditions.
Rhoda, the clinic sister who has worked there for 24 years, proudly gives me a tour. It doesn’t take long. Imagine a demountable classroom divided into three cramped rooms. The first is for admin, the second is for general patients and the third is the ‘labour ward’. In it, there are three old iron-frame beds, each with a thin stained mattress covered with a rubber mat. That’s it. When I ask about pain relief, Sister Rhoda thinks for a moment. “Oh, we have some Asprin”.
Most of the women waiting to have their children immunised gave birth in this small, dirty room. One woman has done it five times. I wonder if the Asprin helped. I flash back to last month when I had to take my 4 year old to hospital late one night. Having parked across the road, I sent whingey texts to my husband during the two hours we spent in the waiting room. We should be so lucky. Free, safe and available healthcare is a pipe dream for millions of people, even our neighbours.
Papua New Guinea is just a few hours from Australia and the living conditions for much of the country’s six million people are dire. 85% of the population live in isolated rural areas and poor sanitation leaves them terribly vulnerable to malnutrition and preventable diseases like measles and pneumonia. Nothing can prepare you for seeing this up close. And never again will I take the availability of immunizations and basic healthcare for my children for granted.
I’d gone to the supermarket before leaving for PNG and bought a whole lot of stickers and party blowers to hand out to some of the kids I met. They proved popular and I quickly ran out. Right at the end, before we left the village, I saw a little girl who had a terrible skin condition. Her clothes were rags and unlike some of the other kids, she didn’t have any little string bracelets or anything girly. I took off my scarf and wrapped it around her neck because I wanted her to have something to make her feel pretty.
(It’s lucky we left at that point because I was thisclose to taking off my watch….as it was I kept giving away my shoes. Some Witchery slip-ons at the hospital and my Converse to a street child outside the airport. I came home in clunky biker boots.)