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‘Lurking beast' of polio casts a shadow over independence day

Polio vacc
At Malahang health clinic near Lae, a health worker administers oral polio vaccine

LISA MARTIN & KATE LYONS | The Guardian | Extract

You can read the complete article here

PORT MORESBY - Sunday should be a day of celebration but the outbreak has brought anger at a lack of health funding while millions are spent on the APEC summit

At a waiting room in Port Moresby’s Gerehu general hospital, red, gold and black balloons – the colours of the country’s flag – deck the walls in the build-up to independence day.

Around the back in the stifling heat, nurses are administering vaccine drops from cool boxes.

About 30 adults and children are queuing under a canvas tent, awaiting their dose to protect against polio, a disease Donald Lippert, a Catholic bishop from the Southern Highlands, characterised as “a beast lurking in the darkness, ready to spring forth”.

The number of confirmed cases has risen to 12 up from 10 earlier in the week, and health authorities have confirmed the disease has reached the capital, Port Moresby, after the diagnosis of a six-year-old boy in an area called Five Mile. The other children affected are in remote parts of the country, and the first case surfaced in June.

The health crisis has cast a shadow over the developing Pacific island country as it prepares to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of its independence from Australia on Sunday. Tribal dancing, agricultural shows and flag raising ceremonies are among festivities scheduled.

Nason Aguleko, an accountant, has brought his 16-year-old daughter Catherine to be immunised along with her grandmother. The family plan to travel to Australia at Christmas to spend time with relatives. A polio vaccination is now part of visa requirements.

Aguleko recalls the lives ruined as a result of the disease when he was growing up. “I’ve seen quite a number of people paralysed from polio over the years,” the father-of-three tells The Guardian. “If someone is affected you can’t support yourself, there is no independence and dreams and aspirations are lost.”

Sister Kenegalato Waligia is a nurse at the hospital and her team has vaccinated 50 to 80 babies each morning this week. “When the outbreak came up we started to see a lot of panicked mothers,” she says. She says more resources are needed to increase PNG vaccination rates.

Over recent years there have been funding cuts to mobile clinics travelling to settlement areas and remote villages to vaccinate children. However, these clinics are set to receive a major boost in the coming months.

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