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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Papua New Guinea Post Courier, June 13) – Papua New Guinea health officials fear the death toll from the children’s sickness whooping cough has accelerated beyond 60 in the villages of the East Sepik Province.

Health Minister Sir Peter Barter found during a helicopter patrol of the affected areas at the weekend that a preliminary tally resulted in an estimate of 60 lives lost.

But this could rise sharply as more information flows in to Wewak and national offices.

The Minister was told by the provincial health adviser that more than 26 members of the immunization team had been stranded in remote villages because there was no money to pay for a commercial helicopter.

Sir Peter immediately flew to Yangoru, one of the affected areas, and took Dr Stenard Kiasihri, the medical officer attached to the Maprik District Hospital, into the affected region between Yangoru and the Sepik River.

[PIR editor’s note: The Sepik River is known as one of the largest discharging rivers in the world. The East Sepik Province is bordered further to the east by the Pacific Ocean. Last census population recorded 350,000 individuals.]

Through Saturday and Sunday, Sir Peter — a qualified helicopter pilot with his own chopper — moved all the stranded medical people and their stores and equipment back to Yangoru. On returning to Wewak, staff compiled a preliminary tally of 60 deaths from the whooping cough outbreak.

Sir Peter said this could easily increase as a result of the difficulty in reaching the villages.

Sir Peter said it was a concern that many of those affected had been immunized but due to the failure of the refrigeration of health supplies and the long foot treks needed to get vaccines to remote areas, the vaccine might have lost its potency against whooping cough.

He said there had been an unconfirmed report of a case of polio, a disease that causes paralysis, and was thought to have been eradicated from Papua New Guinea.

He said the whooping cough outbreak had taken many lives and should be taken seriously.

Provincial authorities had done their best but needed help to extend the immunization patrols to other areas where reports were emerging of the disease’s spread, including the upper Sepik and Middle Ramu areas of Madang Province.

Sir Peter said he would meet Health Secretary Dr Nicholas Mann and heads of the World Health Organization and UNICEF in Papua New Guinea and the National Disaster office.

He thanked health workers in the areas and also the East Sepik Save the Children Fund New Zealand, which has set up an epidemic task force to contain the outbreak.

New Zealand Aid has asked for PGK54,000 [US$18,600] to charter helicopters to airlift medical supplies and vaccines.

June 14, 2006

Papua New Guinea Post Courier Online: www.postcourier.com.pg/

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