AT THE HEALTH CENTRE in the township of Tapini there were more than a dozen patients suffering from tuberculosis waiting for treatment: that's a long queue for a small town.
Kope, two months old, surveyed a world that was still new to him. This beautiful baby boy with eyes so big that you could melt into them had, in his short life, only known suffering. He has TB. His mother died of it.
Tapini is the main town of the district of Goilala in Papua New Guinea's Central Province. It's just 124 kilometres from the capital city of Port Moresby, as the crow flies, but the journey takes over six hours by road – a four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity -The road is often blocked by avalanches.
One can also fly into Tapini - but that's not for the faint-hearted either. Nestled in a small valley, take offs and landings from the grass airstrip that bisects the town are fraught owing to the mountains rising up from the end of the runway between which the pilot must steer a treacherous path.
Nevertheless, it's a trip well worth taking if only to witness the breathtaking scenery of this beautiful remote region. In Goilala life is lived in much the same manner that it has been lived for centuries. To all intents and purposes Goilala is a land that time forgot.
But it’s not only time that has forgotten Goilala.
Goilala is hardly on the radar of the PNG government either - especially when it comes to basic services. There is no central electricity supply in the district for instance.
And while there were up to 15 government aid posts – all but one have been closed due to lack of funding and the fate of the last remaining one hangs by a thread
There are no roads. Public transport is non existent. The government administration offices in Tapini are unmanned.
In Tapini, the Catholic Mission runs the district's school and sole health centre.
The Central Province has just one medical doctor to service 200,000 people.
But if PNG is described as a gold mine floating on a sea of gas and oil, the Goilala district also has its share of mineral wealth. Goilala is host to the Tokuluma gold mine that produces 80,000 ounces of gold a year.
The mine is owned by Petromin - a PNG state owned enterprise and the mine is a handy source of government revenue – not that much trickles down to Goilalans.
However, Goilalans do reap the adverse consequences - The mine discharges 230,000 tonnes of its toxic detritus (known as tailings) into the river system. There is also substantial toxic run off from its waste dumps.
These riverine tailings have poisoned the river system - previously a source of drinking water. Discharged heavy metals such as Arsenic has also killed off a valuable source of protein for the villagers - fish.
Toxic run off has also seeped into the soil polluting the surrounding land and finding its way into underground water supplies – accessed by the people from wells. Now, in some affected villages women need to walk for 4 hours to collect drinking water.
Ironically, 25% of the land area where the Tokuluma mine operates has been declared an area of ecological fragility.
Goilalans are in the unenviable position where their traditional life has been compromised by modernity in the form of industry but they receive scant benefits.
Poverty is rife. The diseases of poverty thrive, unchecked – another legacy of the modern world.
Sister Marina, the town's midwife says that for every ten expectant mothers that she tests at least one or two will test positive to HIV. In the main the men refuse to be tested.
"They contract HIV/AIDS," said Father Brian Cahill, head of the Catholic Mission "but it is TB that kills them."
Poor nutrition further exacerbates the local susceptibility to the disease – sources of protein are few - less since the Tokuluma mine killed the river fish.
In a district of just a few thousand people, the medical centre at Tapini has on its books an average of 40 new cases of tuberculosis a year and further cases (up to 13 in recent years) of retreatment through previous default or reoccurrence.
If those statistics are frightening, they're just the tip of the iceberg because with the government aid posts closed, now, in the remote villages people die quietly and anonymously.
In the villages with little recourse to scientific diagnosis they blame sorcery and they rely on sorcery for the cure. It doesn't work - they die.
Those who don't die, some of which had started treatment but discontinued when aid posts were closed or when the trip to Tapini became too hard are in danger of developing the multi-drug-resistant strain.
The fact that the clinic in Tapini also runs out of drug supplies on a regular basis also increases the risk of MDRTB too.
In a recent report in Australian newspapers it was disclosed that there have been 6 confirmed cases of Extensively Drug Resisant TB (XDRTB) in another province of Papua New Guinea – the impoverished Western Province. XDRTB is known to have a low cure rate and a high death rate.
The situation was highlighted to the Australian authorities when a sufferer from Papua New Guinea flew to Australia on a holiday visa. She is currently in hospital in Australia – her treatment is expected to last 2 years and cost $500,000 - $1,000,000. It is feared that within 5 years this disease will spread to the general population of Australia.
Tuberculosis needs to be stopped - eradicated at the source. Yet, with no diagnostic equipment in Goilala, the question is: how many cases of this frightening strain of TB are lurking undiagnosed?
The question is how? In a country where 50% of the governmental budget each year is lost to corruption – perpetrated by public servants working in concert with politicians - it leaves little available for basic government services – including and especially health.
I wonder whether the corrupt of Papua New Guinea realise the human implications of what they do.
Well I do - They killed Kope's mum.