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Presenter: Radio Australia host Bruce Hill

Speaker: Libby Bowell, Australian Red Cross nurse and aid worker

Government sits back while aid workers struggle

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Feb. 1, 2011) – An Australian Red Cross nurse and aid worker says it's frustrating seeing people in Papua New Guinea's Western Province dying of a preventable disease like cholera.

Libby Bowell, who was in the area assisting the PNG Red Cross cope with a cholera outbreak, says basic knowledge about hygiene and access to good quality drinking water are what's needed to contain the disease.

But she says there are huge difficulties in combating the spread of cholera in such a remote area, and its clear the PNG Red Cross is going to need help.

Bowell: Well it's terrible, it's been going since mid-October and when I was there in December there were up to about four-thousand cases and 400 deaths across a fairly widespread area.

Hill: What was it like physically, were you treating people, what sort of condition were they in, were they old and sick and young or was everyone involved?

Bowell: Most of the people that were cases that we saw were from about the age of 19 through to 40 years of age previously well, but they lived in a pretty primitive village system that is affected by tides monthly. Some of the communities are wiped out because of king tides almost monthly. I saw deaths almost every day in the communities that I was in, and it's been going since mid-October and it's still continuing on and not showing any real signs of decreasing at this stage.

Hill: And how preventable do you think these deaths are?

Bowell: Well cholera is very preventable, it's just difficult in areas that suffer with poor sanitation and don't have access to safe water and don't have knowledge around good hygiene. But cholera is preventable by all of those things, with hygiene washing hands with soap, and having good safe water access and having good sanitation. But most of the areas we were working in have open sanitation and rely on well water, and with the tides and the king tides flooding their communities, then most of these wells have been destroyed.

Hill: Is this something that the PNG government can do anything about, or do you think it's more just a health awareness thing that people need to understand about things like clean drinking water and washing?

Bowell: Look I think it's both. I think that it's in the Western Province, it doesn't seem to get a lot of support from the PNG government and certainly that was reinforced to us by the people in those areas. But yeah they need a great lot of assistance around health promotion and safe water practice and access to safe water. And that's really what PNG Red Cross's major role is, they're very good at health promotion and public health awareness, and they're involved in four phases of that; they're in the second phase right now.

Hill: Does the PNG government have enough resources to combat this or do you think Australia should come in, either the Australian Red Cross or perhaps the Australian government at some stage?

Bowell: Well both the Australian government and Australian Red Cross were there in December supporting both the PNG Red Cross and the local government. I think the problems in PNG right now is they're suffering with floods as well, as well as the cholera's in several provinces, it's actually in Port Moresby as well I think with a couple of hundred deaths just in the last couple of months, and about four-thousand cases reported in Port Moresby as well. So it's widespread, it was further north last year. I don't know whether the PNG government's got the resources. The Australian Red Cross is supporting two-fold in that there was myself and a water and sanitation engineer there in December, and we were looking to see what extra support the Australian Red Cross needs to provide. Logistically Daru and that area is a nightmare to get freight to, but the Australian Red Cross is now supporting from Melbourne with funding, and I don't know, I actually don't know whether the Australian government is providing any more. But the Australian government through AusAid helped put up the cholera treatment centre at the hospital and had provided an engineer as well, they were there in December as well.

Hill: It must be frustrating to see people dying from such a preventable disease?

Bowell: It's horrible, it's a horrible thing to see. Australia's a lucky country, I know that we've been through our own problems in the last month, but Australia should never see cholera. We know about good hygiene, we have access to safe water and safe sanitation. It's a terrible thing to see people dying every day from a disease that should and can be prevented.

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