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On ageing

Nurses at Kapuna Hospital, Gulf Province, c 1970CHRIS OVERLAND

IN THE very near future I will celebrate my 65th birthday and, in doing so, join the ranks of those who are deemed to have officially entered old age.

Surviving 65 years on this planet is, historically speaking, an unusual event. Humans have, until very recently, tended to have a life that English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) described as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Ironically, Hobbes lived for 91 years in reasonable comfort and good health, a stupendous achievement for his era.

Even in the 19th century achieving 65 years of age was so improbable that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck (1815 - 1898) felt able to offer a state pension to those few citizens who made the distance. The wily Otto had been assured by actuaries that only 3% or so of the population would actually survive long enough to claim the pension, so the anxious Treasury could be reassured that the financial cost would not be very great.

Now, across much of the world, people are tending to survive a good deal longer than either Hobbes or Bismarck foresaw. This is mostly a tribute to the introduction of basic public health measures like a clean water supply, safe and effective sewage disposal, the prevention of communicable diseases through vaccination programs and, since the early 1940's, the use of antibiotics.

In pre-colonial PNG, the average life span of around 40 years was about the same as that found in Neolithic Europe. The colonial authorities thus put a lot of emphasis on introducing basic public health services such as teaching the value of good personal hygiene, requiring the construction and use of "long drop" toilets, the construction of wells and water tanks to create supplies of clean potable water and the use of a basic array of drugs to treat common illnesses.

On patrol, I liked to have access to a few useful drugs like Neosporin Powder to treat sores, Nivaquine to treat Malaria, Sulphadimidine to treat gut complaints, Procaine Penicillin to treat pneumonia and, of course, the ever reliable Paracetamol for aches and pains.  Even 45 years ago these 5 drugs were not front line medicines but were sufficient to deal with most of the health complaints that afflicted villagers. The liklik dokta (Medical Orderly) who accompanied the patrol always had plenty of customers.

As a result of these efforts over several decades, the average life span for Papua New Guineans began to rise so that, by 1975, survival beyond the age of 65 years was an achievable aspiration for many more people than had previously been the case.  The vast improvement in the health and longevity of Papua New Guineans was, I think, one of the most profound yet largely unremarked achievements of Australian colonialism.

Now, sadly, it appears that things are going backwards owing to a decline in the quality and availability of basic public health services. Achieving 65 years of age is become harder, especially if you are still living a subsistence based lifestyle in a remote village. The educated and wealthier people are doing better of course, but then they always do.

I am utterly unsentimental about birthdays, so my 65th seems no big deal to me. However, I am not unaware of the fact that, from a historic perspective, I have done remarkably well indeed. Those of us who live in the generally very privileged western world tend not to see things this way: if you are used to a high standard of living it just seems natural and normal and often is not recognised for the miracle that it is.

Statisticians tell us that, pretty soon, centenarians will be as common in Australia as 65 year olds were in Bismarck's Germany. This doubtless is a great worry to the Treasury and one of my new ambitions is to personally fulfil their worst expectations.

Another hope is that the PNG government might rediscover and act upon its legal and moral obligation to provide a decent if basic public health service to the people, thereby giving more of them a chance to exceed the Bismarckian benchmark, as I have done.


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Harry Topham

Chris - Welcome aboard the good ship Hope.

Michael Dom

The Herald (Scotland) of 16 October 2014, reported that life expectancy in Glasgow was the lowest in the United Kingdom, at 73 years for men and 78.5 years for women.

I had an old grandfather who must have made it to 100 years old. He was a young man, with wife and kids, when he welcomed William Bergmann into the Kundiawa area.

About ten years ago, my mates and I decided to throw a party for a long time family friend to celebrate his 50th birthday.

We were out shopping for about 2 hours, so he decided to clean up the yard on his own. That included pruning back the two massive marmar trees under which we were to cook.

He brought down a few branches too because we needed the firewood.

That yard is still one of the best kept on the campus.

The secret he said, "Maik, mi ino save kaikai abus tumas, na planti taim mi save kukim kaikai nating long paia".

"Mi save dring kol wara, na wanwan taim dring bia - em blong klinim sistem!"

If I can get up a marmar tree when I'm 50, I'll consider my life well lived.

Daniel Kumbon

There is a man from Teremanda village near Wabag town named Job who thinks he is about 100 years of age. He eats and drinks nothing but sweet potataoes and pure water. He also takes, fruits and vegetables and mixes honey in his tea. And he looks youthful still.

The current generation, mostly those of us who live in urban settings forget that PNG's traditional foods are still the best. We are not watching our diets.

PNG will continue to remain at the bottom in all fronts it seems - low life expectancy, low illiteracy rate, low everything but I believe PNG will rise up one day. Education is the key.

Chris Overland

Inspired by the various comments on my article, I did some research through Dr Google on the health status of Papua New Guineans.

According to Australian Doctors International, in 2013 life expectancy was 62 years for males and 65 for females. Contrary to my expressed concerns, it has improved somewhat over the last 15 years or so.

However, PNG still ranks 157 out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index and that is worse than both Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). Australia ranks 2nd.

Only 51 out of PNG's 400 doctors work outside of Port Moresby, so the bulk of the population has little or no access to their services.

Bismarck would still have every right to feel pretty confident about the pension budget and that ought to cause the PNG government to hang its head in shame.

Still, it beats Glasgow apparently and that is something I guess.

Bernard Corden

I was having a coffee with an MSF doctor at the café in Brian Bell's store in Lae back in 2009 and discussing the cholera outbreak and PNG life expectancy.
I had a copy of the Guardian Weekly with me and it published an article on public health in the UK and the average life expectancy in East Glasgow, where the doctor was from, was 55 years!

Bill Brown


Roy Scragg OBE MD FRACMA MPH (Former Director of Public Health, and Foundation Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine UPNG) put it another way his review of his 27 years in PNG. He said:

“I have defined five eras—Epidemic, War, Curative, Preventive and Independence—… … …

The expectation of life at birth is a broad measure of the quality of health services, and in each era heading I have shown my estimate of this statistic for the country as a whole during that era.

Epidemic era, 1880-1941: Expectation of life 25 years

War era, 1942-1946: Expectation of life 20 years

Curative era, 1947-1959: Expectation of life 40 years
1947 estimate: 1,300,000 persons

Preventative era, 1960-1975: Expectation of life 50 years
1966 Census: 2,150,313 persons

Independence era, 1975 on: Expectation of life 55 years
1980 Census: 2,978,057 persons
2000 Census: 5,190,786 persons.”

Roy Scragg, himself, is influencing the Expectation of Life statistic. He is now 92, and last year was the keynote speaker at a Cambridge University conference on population, flying to and fromo the UK in premium economy class.

Daniel Kumbon

Here is a quote on aging Chris.

'There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age. Sophia Loren
Read more at:

Joe Herman

I agree with Phil's comment about the change in diet is impacting the lives of people in PNG. Many of the educated and the wealthier people are prematurely dying from cardiovascular disease. Thank you, Chris for this piece.

Raymond Sigimet

You know Chris, while I was reading what you have written here; the smirked up face of Michael Malabag (the national Health Minister of PNG) smiling, laughing away and giving half-hearted responses at the floor of parliament about national health issues. I wonder if he has a professional background in health to be given that ministerial portfolio. Ah! PNG!

Philip Fitzpatrick

What also mitigates against reaching a ripe old age in PNG is the change in diet. Instead of good, locally grown food many people survive on high fat, high carbohydrate food like lamb flaps and flour balls.

The same affliction occurs in western societies, in this case chips, hamburgers and pizzas.

Lack of exercise doesn't help either.

We have an obesity epidemic both here and in PNG. For the first time ever it seems like the parents of the present generation will live longer than their children.

One of the commonest traits of the PNG politician is that they are very fat. They obviously don't appreciate the problem.

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