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17 June 2011


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Myra Kennedy Macey - It is appreciable to note your historical article about Gemo Island near Port Moresby, PNG.

Due to coastal and wave action, the island has experienced erosional impacts. The historical jetty and WWII battery bunkers are almost completely eroded with only fragments of the cement basement remaining.

Recently, a local man from Rouku Village discovered the remains of three human skeletons buried approximately at one metre depth from the soil surface.

Half of the skeletons were washed away by waves, only one - half skull and the hip to toe bones still buried but exposed at the edge of the wave cut cliff.

These skeletal remains are suspicious in the nature of burial, being a mass burial of bodies - two overlaying each other and the other beside them.

Macey can you verify to your knowledge on the possible burials of dead lepers on Gemo Island? Otherwise the skeletons may be World War II remains which may call for the state History Department's appropriate nofication for possible investigation.

You can contact me, Basen Samadari (Port Moresby, PNG), on email I am an environmental scientist who has visited Gemo Island and seen the remains on the site directly facing towards Port Moresby's main harbour.

Photographs of these skeletons and Gemo Island are available on request.

From the 18th century the Royal Navy had a fairly rational policy of establishing strict quarantine measures for ships suspected of carrying infectious diseases.

Most colonial powers did the same, as Europe and its colonies were often ravaged by diseases such as smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, diphtheria, TB, leprosy and the like.

These places were usually chosen for being isolated and therefore easily policed and close to established harbours. Many were located on islands close to main ports of entry.

Some notable examples are the quarantine station at North Head at the entrance to Sydney harbour, and Molokai Island in Hawaii. While some were well-managed and provided decent healthcare, others were places of degradation and death.

For further insights into life at such stations I recommend the film 1999 'Molokai: The Story of Father Damien' about the Hawaii leper colony.

There were also quarantine stations in Papua and New Guinea, but perhaps their history is little known today.

One of the most prominent was Gemo Island - aka Hanudamava, at the entrance to Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby. This was used mainly to isolate people with leprosy, or Hanson's disease, as well as TB.

Prior to 1974, persons with leprosy were sent to leper colonies at Raihu in West Sepik, Togoba in the Western Highlands, Gemo Island in the National Capital District, New Hanover in New Ireland and Yagaum and Daigul in Madang.

With the integration of leprosy control in the general health services after 1974 and the later use of multi-drug therapy, the Government was able to declare in 2000 that PNG was ‘leprosy-free’.

Betty Cunnington was was the Country Director in PNG for the Leprosy Mission She had worked in PNG for 29 years where her main role was in training communities and health workers in preventing and treating leprosy, and its resulting disabilities.

She states "I came to PNG in July 1974 and spent the first 6-8 weeks in Port Moresby....for a short time lived on Gemo Island. I do not remember there being many patients...

"I did assist in the closure of the hospital in 1974. The Island was not a long way from the mainland."

Gemo island was also the site of a gun battery in WWII.

Myra Macey who worked at Gemo gives additional information: "In 1937 Gemo Island was the site chosen to isolate villagers suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis. I worked in PNG from 1960 to 1982 mainly as a nursing sister.

"Gemo Island is a narrow rocky hump, grass covered in the wet season with few trees and shrubs, about 1.5 km long and 3 km to walk around, in the harbour 3km off-shore from Port Moresby.

"A small Government launch made the half hour journey twice weekly when I first arrived, but by the time of closure in 1974 we had about 4 trips daily.

"Medical work in the area was undertaken by the London Missionary Society, Nursing sister Constance Fairhall started the work, and with a small team of medical orderlies and patients, they lived on the Island.

"It was a successful venture, but in those days the recovery rate was low. In 1941 they were evacuated and the Island was used by the Allied Forces for duration of WW2."

In the 1950's there were on average between 2 - 300 patients on the island.

Myra has written a book about her experiences on Gemo Island - "Memories of a Happy Island in the Sun" [Myra Kennedy Macey, 2008, Working with tuberculosis and leprosy in Papua New Guinea. ISBN 9780646501055]

Obviously there should be a couple more TB quarantine treatment clinics around Western Province, it is a very big place.

Saibai is close for some (and has lots of fresh oxygenated sea air good for TB sufferers).

Given that Western Province, including Saibai Island, was part of Australia's former Territory of Papua, the fact that Queensland is involved was logically due closest proximity.

The cost of managing territories was always a federal thing, Qeensland Health obviously has been managing - thankyu - and Australia as a whole we pray will still bless its Papuan children.

Since sadly we're still not really old enough to stand on our own two feet, most of us here still appreciate your parental~guaradian assistance in a lot of things.

As a teenage country we at times like to try to make our own decisions, obviously we do fall in some potholes and still need a lifeline helping hand.

There have been talks today between Australian and PNG health officials to agree treatment services for the PNG TB patients in the Torres Strait clinics if, or more likely when, they are closed.

The federal health authorities and AusAID are on the defensive with a couple of press releases justifying the closure of the TB clinics and claiming that they are working to improve services in Daru.

(Yeah - like they and PNG Health have only had about 20 years to do so.)

An interesting perspective is given by Torres Strait Island Regional Council mayor Fred Gela in the Torres News.

The first of his comments seems to argue for closing the clinics because an influx of infected people will increase the risk for Torres Strait communities.

In fact the typically emotive headline is "Stop offering aid to PNG nationals".

However if you read further a more complex and sympathetic argument is made by Mayor Gela and his comments are worth quoting, as they show that what it really comes down to is political argy-bargy about funding to the value of a few million between Qld, the Feds and PNG. I sense AusAID's hand in this too.


From the Torres News:

“There is a lack of resources in our communities at the best of times; yet providing these clinics to an influx of patients from the Western Province puts further strain on our water supply and our resources.”

Mayor Gela said that Council have urged both Qld health and DEFAT to negotiate and discuss another vehicle to accommodate TB patients from within the Western Province.

“Some people living in the Western Province are more than four hours away from the nearest health facility - so it is only human nature that they would jump on a boat to come to Saibai where they can be freely treated a stones throw away,” he said.

“We feel for our neighbours and we can sympathise with their hardship, but saying that, we cannot continue to jeopardise our health and our resources.

“What the health committees didn’t discuss was an alternative option for the people of the Western Province.

“If they simply cut off the clinics there is nothing in place for these people.

“The solution was there on the table with the health committees to develop various clinics in the Western Province and use our communities in the meantime as a stop-gap measure.

“Yet this solution has not been discussed further.

“A high level of consultation needs to take place to implement a solution to the threats we face when these TB clinics close between State and Commonwealth Governments, and the PNG Government.”

Mayor Gela made both formal and written representations on this matter in the Senate Hearing, pointing out to the Australia Government, that the PNG Government would continue to neglect the people of the Western Province because they rely on our Government for continued support.

“It is hard to know where to draw the line in the sand” Mayor Gela said.

“Australia has a big heart.

“We are being placed over a barrel and being held to ransom.

“If we don’t implement a solution for our neighbours - who will?

“Can we risk waiting to see what consequences occur if treatment comes to a stand still?”

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