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Rare instance of cholera in Papua New Guinea brings challenges in raising awareness about treatment and prevention

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For the first time in 50 years, a cholera outbreak is affecting Papua New Guinea. Mainly concentrated in the eastern Morobe province, the disease has so far infected 283 people, according to official figures.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), already working in Lae, the provincial capital, was able to mobilise quickly and assist the Ministry of Health in responding to the outbreak. Initially an isolation ward was set up in the Angau Hospital, but when cases increased, a specially constructed Cholera Treatment Centre (CTC) made out of a series of tents, was established at the front of the hospital. The MSF CTC has a capacity of 84 beds, and so far, 90 patients have been treated by MSF teams.

“At the moment, we are not seeing a rapid increase in cases in Lae,” said Steven Cooper, MSF’s Emergency Coordinator. “However, as cholera is a highly contagious disease, we must remain vigilant. We are continuing to monitor the situation and assess more remote areas. We are hearing reports that cholera is affecting smaller villages so we are sending teams to examine the situation, and we will be ready to respond if necessary.”

As cholera has not been present in the country for 50 years, challenges have arisen in raising awareness about treatment and prevention and in reducing the stigma surrounding the disease. For example, some public transport providers are refusing to carry patients, meaning they cannot access treatment. Over the last few weeks, MSF has therefore focused energy on raising awareness about the disease, and has organised workshops on hygiene and the use of chlorine and briefed key members of the community including schools, pharmacies and local NGOs.

Symptoms of cholera include profuse vomiting and diarrhoea resulting in severe dehydration. It is a highly contagious disease but can be prevented by following strict hygiene practices and using and drinking safe, clean water. Treatment is simple: many patients are treated using Oral Rehydration Solution, a treatment which has the correct amount of electrolytes to rehydrate a patient. More severe cases are treated using intravenous drips.

MSF will continue to provide treatment for cholera patients until the epidemic is contained.

In addition to cholera, there has been a confirmed outbreak of dysentery (Shigella flexineri) and influenza (Type A) in Menyama district. MSF is planning to also send a medical assessment team to investigate.

MSF has been working in Papua New Guinea since 2007. In addition to the current emergency response, teams provide free medical and psychological care for victims of sexual and domestic violence in Lae at the Angau Hospital. There is also a team in Tari, providing emergency medical and surgical care for victims of violence at the Tari Hospital.