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Towards a Healthier PNG

By Peter Siba

Medical researchers in Papua New Guinea face unique scientific and public health challenges.

The staff of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research work in an environment that inspires fear and travel warnings for the governments of many of our collaborating partners. Yet we are not daunted by the challenges facing our country as we have even more pressing issues to address.

Every day, children and adults in PNG are dying from treatable and preventable illnesses such as pneumonia, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and filariasis, among others. Yet these medical problems are often preventable in Australia and New Zealand.

Many factors contribute to these deaths, with lack of proper diagnosis and treatment a major issue. This is where medical research comes in, and this is where the PNG Institute of Medical Research shines.

Over the past 45 years the IMR has been conducting medical research into health problems affecting Papua New Guineans with the goal of improving our overall health. Our headquarters is in Goroka in the Eastern Highlands; we have branches in Port Moresby and the coastal towns of Madang, Maprik and Alotau, and smaller study sites in remote locations.

We have around 500 staff working on 79 different studies, and while the vast majority are from our country, we also enjoy the expertise of researchers from yours.

IMR has been studying diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, malaria, tuberculosis, pigbel, filariasis, typhoid, measles, and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, maternal and child health diseases, and cancer of women.

We work long hours in the field, in hospitals and in our laboratories to find out how these diseases affect our bodies, which germs are causing illnesses, and which drugs provide the most effective treatment.

To complement our laboratory-based research we also study people’s lifestyles to understand how these diseases are acquired – human behaviour, attitudes and practices.

Our highly trained staff travel across PNG, often to remote areas, to collect this data, at times risking poor roads and insecurity to improve health care for our people.

The Institute also has researchers stationed at major hospitals and health centres throughout the country to collect quality data for our studies and provide extra staffing as required.

Our laboratories also analyse samples for hospitals, identifying recent outbreaks of chikungunya, for example.

As a government organisation, all our research programs and services focus on diseases prioritised under PNG government strategies such as the National Health Plan, the Medium-Term Development Strategy and PNG Vision 2050.

It is of paramount importance that quality data is generated from our studies, then analysed and transformed into relevant health policies that will improve the health and lifestyle of our people and contribute towards global knowledge.

We prioritise training for our national staff including scientists and clinicians. At any one time we have staff studying for their Honours, Masters and doctorate to ensure new generations of researchers can shoulder their responsibilities.

The Institute also receives substantial financial support from the PNG government, from AusAID and international research grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Global Fund and others.

We work closely with the PNG National Department of Health and National AIDS Council Secretariat, the World Health Organisation, and research organisations in countries including Australia, Japan, Switzerland and the United States.

When it comes to improving health in our country, our Institute continues to rise to the challenge. These diseases are killers, it is our people at risk and we will never give up.

There is more to PNG than what you see in the headlines, so please visit our website and find out more.

Professor Peter Siba is Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (