Iru is a softly spoken woman with a gentle nature, but you can see a strength and passion for life in her eyes. She lives on a small island called Daru in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Everyone knows everyone in Daru and you can drive around the island in about 20 minutes. The main hub is the market place near the pier where women sell local delicacies like giant barramundi and mud crabs.
Two years ago Iru came close to dying when she contracted Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis or MDR-TB from her neighbour. TB is a very contagious disease that generally causes persistent coughing, weight loss, fever, loss of appetite and chest and back pain. It is spread through the air when a person infected with TB coughs, sneezes, spits or talks.
MDR-TB is resistant to first line anti-TB drugs and is a lot harder to treat. Patients are generally required to undergo intensive treatment for 20 to 24 months to beat the disease, whereas normal TB only requires six months of treatment.
“Two years of taking medicines is really tough...but I only have one life,” Iru says intently.
“I completed my treatment in May, I succeeded. I feel really happy. If I can do it, anyone else can do it.”
TB is a very serious health issue in PNG. The nation has the highest TB burden in the Pacific region with more than 14,500 new cases diagnosed a year.[i] In comparison, Australia only records 1,200 cases per year.[ii] Many people with TB in PNG go undiagnosed and untreated because of fear, stigma, poverty and difficulty accessing healthcare services.
World Vision started working in the Western Province in February 2012 to inform communities about the TB, help patients to access the treatment they need, train healthcare workers and clinically manage TB cases.
World Vision’s work follows the global standards for TB treatment known as Directly Observed Treatment Short Course or DOTS. This involves treating the patients in their communities with the help of TB Treatment Supporters who visit patients regularly and ensure they take their medication.
Iru felt so passionately about saving other people from TB that she signed up to be a Treatment Supporter.
“I became a Treatment Supporter straight after I completed my medications. I wanted to help others, because everyone saw that I had TB and if they see that I survive then maybe I can help someone else,” Iru says.
DOTS is endorsed by the World Health Organisation as the best way to treat TB patients. In regions like the Western Province where many villages are extremely remote and can only be reached by a long boat ride, DOTS ensures that once patients leave the hospital they have access to medication and that they continue to take it every day. If a patient does not take their medication correctly or stops taking it, they may develop MDR TB which can then be directly transferred to another person, which is how Iru contracted the disease.
Kauro, another Treatment Supporter, currently looks after three patients.
“They [the TB specialist] treat the patient in the hospital for two to three weeks until they are better and then discharge them in to the community and we look after them up until the end of the treatment,” explains Kauro.
“I see them [the patients] every day. We take the drugs to their house and they drink [the tablets] in front of us. As long as they take the drugs every day, they will improve. The sickness will be cured.
“There are a lot of people in the community who are very supportive of the work we are doing...the community leaders help us and are doing a fine job. They help me to talk to the families in their regular meetings they hold in the communities.
“I like the work as a volunteer worker...I have a heart for my people. I always talk to my patients and give them the treatment so they can become free of TB....so our community can become free of TB.”
In Western Province, the TB program is managed by World Vision in partnership with AusAID and the provincial and national government authorities. The program is already seeing signs of success, including a dramatic increase in the number of patients starting and completing treatment.