ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ
DURING the Middle Ages, nearly half of the people of western Europe was wiped out by an unknown killer, identified only as “Black Death” for lack of anything to describe it.
Decades later, it was found that the culprit was an epidemic form of bubonic plague, the most common form of plague in humans, characterised by chills, prostration and delirium among others. It was acquired from flea that bit an infected animal.
In a number of remote villages in Papua New Guinea, the epidemic that is now causing health crisis among the people resulting in a number of deaths has been triggered by cholera, influenza and dysentery.
These are three deadly diseases that are not only known to health authorities but are also deeply embedded in the people’s “hygiene-less culture”.
Reports gathered by medical teams dispatched to more than 20 different outbreak areas revealed one common denominator – there is an acute lack of hygiene awareness.
The basic knowledge on safe drinking water, proper food handling, proper waste disposal and the need to have proper toilet is absent.
Is it any wonder germs and bacteria originating from the wastes of domesticated animals such as pigs – the most common pets in rural PNG – and human ended up in water tributaries like creeks, springs and wells?
Even food can become home to disease-carrying deadly micro-organisms.
One thing certain is that there is no source of safe drinking water in affected areas except for the usual springs and creeks where the villagers also do their washing, bathing and other cleaning chores.
But in remote villages of Menyamya, the epicentre of the crisis, and the surrounding areas that stretch up to the borders of Eastern Highlands and Gulf, these basic things are not there.
This is because the local government that is supposed to look after the needs of the people such as clean water, is ineffective and penniless.
Most of the time, it is saddled with the usual petty politics among the leaders and administrators while healthcare funds are being diverted elsewhere.
And worst, illiteracy and ignorance among the rural women is unusually high.
A recent study showed that about 1.7 million women (out of the country’s six million people) cannot read or write. Obviously, a great number of them are found in the rural areas like Menyamya and its vicinity.
Although rural wives and mothers would like to keep a healthy family and avoid the occurrence of these preventable diseases, it was simply impossible for them do so.
The lack of basic knowledge on hygiene practices has made it easy for disease-carrying germs and bacteria to do their deadly routine in the human body.
Germs and bacteria are carried by this nasty insect called fly (or flies) that thrives profusely. Domesticated pigs that are let loose are also effective carriers.
Flies and pigs feed on human excreta that lie around the bush. Whenever flies make contact with faeces, their hairy feet collect minuscule portion which are then transferred to any surface they made contact with, food, for instance. On the other hand, pigs would be butchered later for meat.
When germ-contaminated food is ingested, the germs/bacteria enter body and settle in the intestines where they multiply. Once this happens, the body hosting them is doomed.
The absence of basic toilet facilities in rural villages, whether makeshift covered pit, or one using the septic tank system, has also contributed to many of the disease outbreaks, the most common of which is cholera.
Being aware of the need to stay healthy by drinking safe water and eating cooked food and practising proper hygiene is battle half won already.
The other half is the Government’s awareness on the need to keep the citizens – both in urban areas and villages – healthy.
But being aware alone will not bring about a healthy nation; it requires political will too, a vital commodity that is sorely missing. As a result, the healthcare system is getting a lousy treatment.