BY ANDRÉE STEPHENS
Aniba Petru brought his daughter, sick with tuberculosis, to Cairns Base Hospital from the Western Province in Papua New Guinea in February, only to see her die a week later on 24 February. Nearly four months on, Mr Petru is still waiting in Cairns trying to get his daughter’s body home for burial.
His devastating journey was indicative of a growing problem of health refugees seeking medical treatment at Far Northern hospitals and clinics because of inadequate services in their own country.
Responsibility for the PNG nationals has become a political football, a funding battle and a major humanitarian and public health issue for Australia, with the Far North at the frontline.
Mr Petru left his village in Kawada in an eight-hour trip by dinghy with his sick daughter to Daru Island, then on to Saibai where Australian TB clinics operate. Extremely ill, they had to be flown to Cairns Base Hospital for emergency treatment.
Martha died from complications and Mr Petru received three months treatment in isolation. A month ago he was given the all-clear but is still unable to get home and still lives in a room at the hospital. His daughter’s death certificate is yet to be given to him.
“I want them to take me back home to bury Martha,” he said. He has been unable to contact family, has no money and is worried he will have to make the same arduous journey back to his village with his daughter’s coffin.
A reserve policeman in his village, Mr Petru lives a simple subsistence life with his two other children, aged 16 and 12. Mr Petru’s wife also died from tuberculosis.
Cairns resident Robert Slade, who met Mr Petru at the hospital, says he’s disgusted with his treatment. “He’s a good Christian man, and as a father, what he did for his daughter was amazing,” Mr Slade said.
“These are our closest neighbours and this is how they’re treated. I don’t see our national values represented in this case.”
Mr Slade said there seemed to be some confusion over who was responsible for Mr Petru. Cairns and Hinterland Health Service executive officer Julie Hartley-Jones agreed yesterday that Mr Petru had been through a “very difficult time”.
“Queensland Health has continued to offer him ongoing support and assistance,” she said.
Arrangements were in place to help Mr Petru and his family privately repatriate Martha’s body but the department was notified in mid-May that this was no longer possible. “Queensland Health is talking with Mr Petru to ensure timing and arrangements to repatriate his daughter’s body are suitable to him,” Ms Hartley Jones said.
“A social worker and indigenous health worker have been working with Mr Petru to resolve this to his satisfaction, and will continue to do so.”
It is understood Mr Petru has the choice of being flown with his daughter to Saibai, then making his own way home (by dinghy) or flying back by charter which would cost up to $10,000 an hour because of the coffin. The latter would also mean long delays because of Customs considerations.
Mr Petru’s plight comes at a time when the Queensland and Federal governments have agreed to phase out tuberculosis clinics on the outer islands of the Torres Strait and emergency treatments on mainland Australia, effectively cutting off PNG nationals to medical treatment here.
But health experts warn the move would open the door to deadly drug- resistant TB strains crossing over to the mainland as more desperate PNG nationals try to come directly to Australia. Under the Torres Strait Treaty’s free-movement provisions, PNG nationals can travel through the international waters for cultural reasons only. But for years they have been seeking medical help from the outpost clinics.
Severe cases have then proceeded to Australian mainland hospitals, particularly Cairns Base. As one Cairns doctor said: “We cannot turn them away.”
The political defence for closing the remote clinics is that PNG receives international funding and AusAID support for their own TB clinics and the focus should be on making those the end point for PNG nationals
Photo: Aniba Petru and Robert Slade outside Cairns Base Hospital
Source: The Cairns Post