Pictured (from L to R): Chief Ophthalmologist, Dr Simon Melengas; Dr Goa Tau, Director Medical Services (NDoH), Deputy Secretary of Health, Dr Paison Dakulala; PBL President, Dr Jambi Garap and Dr Bieb, Director Disease Control (NDoH).
“It was tough”, PNG Eye Care General Manager, Samuel Koim, explained, presenting the logistic of the PNG Rapid Assessment of Avoidable Blindness. “You know in PNG a RAAB budget is ten times more expensive than the WHO average. And then we had the tribal fights and avalanches and floods and even one group of villagers who chased our teams away because they thought we were campaigning for the election. It was very challenging, but we did it.”
Getting data on anything in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is difficult. It’s expensive, communications are lacking, the terrain can be perilous and the transport infrastructure severely underdeveloped. So it’s not surprising that there was an air of celebration in Port Moresby on Wednesday (19 July) as the members of the National Prevention of Blindness Committee (PBL) came together to present the RAAB data to the Department of Health.
Traditionally dressed Highlanders accompanied Chief Ophthalmologist, Dr Simon Melengas and PBL President, Dr Jambi Garap as they presented the interim report to PNG Deputy Health Secretary, Dr Paison Dakulala. The RAAB was implemented by Brien Holden Vision Institute with logistical support from PNG Eye Care and funded by the Fred Hollows Foundation Australia. In a truly collaborative effort data collection teams also included participants from the University of Papua New Guinea, CBM and the Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand plus department of health ophthalmologists, and ophthalmic clinicians from around the country.
Dr Anthea Burnett and Dr Ling Lee from the Brien Holden Vision Institute broke down the findings for the assembled guests and media. Given the logistical challenges inherent in PNG, it’s understandable that the data reveals significant eye health challenges. A prevalence rate of 5.6% ranks PNG well behind her neighbours in the region and is potentially amongst the worst in the world. In the Highlands of PNG, this prevalence rises to 11.1% in females and 6.6% in males – and highlights significant gender disparity identified by the RAAB. Cataract and refractive error remain the two largest causes of avoidable blindness and diabetic retinopathy – like elsewhere in the Pacific – has been noted as an emerging issue. But despite the sobering results, Dr Burnett was keen to stress that the successful conclusion of the RAAB, in such a difficult environment, bodes well for the capabilities of the PNG Eye Health community.
This is very much the ongoing message for the government of PNG and the donor community in the region: with their support, the members of the Prevention of Blindness Committee in PNG can impact these figures. In a series of discussions and side-meetings facilitated by IAPB, the team workshopped cost-effective outcomes such as endorsement of the National Eye Plan, embedding consumables on the National List, supporting additional training positions and working together to develop a National Coordinator position.
There’s a lot of work to be done and whilst the PBL members aren’t about to rest on their laurels they can legitimately pause for a moment to say “tenk yu tru’”to all concerned.