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The PNG flu epidemic of 1969


ADELAIDE - In late 1969, I was summoned to the Assistant District Commissioner’s office in Kerema and told I was to prepare to go immediately on patrol in the mountains lying to the north of the town.

I was to be accompanied by three aid post orderlies and several police. Our task was to identify and treat people suffering from the Hong Kong Influenza, which was running rampant across the world and had finally reached Papua New Guinea.

So far as I can recall, similar patrols were being sent out all over the Gulf District and the entire country to cope with what had rapidly become a major public health emergency.

Before my departure, I was sent to the hospital to learn how to inject people with procaine penicillin. This drug was known to be an effective treatment of the pneumonia which was and still is the primary source of fatalities amongst flu victims.

I can still remember how to quarter a buttock and then stab the needle into the upper quadrant of the gluteus maximus muscle with considerable force, before slowly injecting the buttock with about 30 millilitres of the drug.

The result was a large, sore lump in the bum, which slowly released the drug throughout the body to fight the infection.

Less than 48 hours later my colleagues and I were deposited by helicopter at Paingoba village in the Pepike census district.

From there, we were asked to visit as many nearby villages as possible to identify and treat flu victims who had subsequently contracted pneumonia.

We soon found many people who were very sick indeed and began treating them.

Anyone who has had procaine penicillin will know that it is unpleasant. I can verify this from firsthand experience, having endured several such injections at various times to treat serious infections, notably very severe tonsillitis.

The people bore this treatment stoically. Nevertheless I was especially sorry for the children we treated in this way. But it had to be done.

Over the course of several weeks, the patrol saw or treated more than 200 people. At least 22 people died in the relatively small area our patrol could reach, 11 of them in one poor village.

I have no idea what the overall death toll was in PNG, but total deaths across the world were estimated to be between one and four million.

By inference, some thousands of Papua New Guineans must have died as a consequence of contracting a disease for which they had no natural immunity.

Residents of the highlands, who lived in areas remote from medical services, were particularly badly affected.

The response of the colonial Administration was very rapid and comprehensive, at least as far as its resources allowed.

This no doubt mitigated the worst impact of the disease but fell short of the effort required to reach everyone in the country at that time.

Now, with COVID 19 spreading rapidly, PNG is once again under threat, this time by an apparently much more virulent disease with a death rate of around 3.5%.

My sense is that PNG is much less well prepared now to deal with this disease than it was in the case of the Hong Kong Flu.

There seems to be a certain amount of complacency and dithering on the part of the government.

This impression may be wrong, and I hope it is, but the consequences of an inadequate response could be devastating.


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