Prevention better than cure

Prevention is better than cure. It leads to fewer preventable deaths, less illness and costs a lot less.

Ask any health staff working in remote parts of Papua New Guinea what might happen if we could improve water, sanitation and hygiene in communities. 

That is the message behind OSF’s new information brochure on the many health benefits of safe water, proper toilets and improved hygiene. 

Written in Tok Pisin as well as English, the brochure is colourful, illustrated and packed with tips for the best ways to keep germs at bay. It pays particular attention to the importance of safe water and how, when and where people should wash their hands. Another section deals with safe waste disposal and why covered toilets are crucial.

Titled the “WASH Toolkit” (water, sanitation and hygiene), the brochure also looks at how leaving bottled water in sunlight can make it safer to drink and why it is best to kill flies, use soap and wear shoes.

It also spells out why it is safest to keep animals, rubbish and faeces (poo) away from water and food.

With over 6,000 diarrheal deaths ever year and cholera and polio ongoing concerns, PNG ranks at or near the bottom of all Pacific countries for all WASH-related health statistics. The PNG Government’s National WaSH Policy notes that more than 60 percent of people lack a safe source of drinking water (ie water taken from a tap, tank, pipe or well) while some 81 percent live far away from a clean, covered toilet, which leads to widespread open defecation in rural communities.

With 15,000 copies printed and set to be distributed across villages, health centres, churches and schools, the WASH Toolkit represents the latest resource in OSF’s ongoing efforts to address WASH related diseases.

Working with the Hela Provincial Health Authority’s Public Health team, OSF recently launched the toolkit in Tari and then in 14 villages across Hela, reaching thousands of people. 

Working with the Principal of Walidedge Primary School, the PHA team talked to hundreds of children and launched a new Ventilation Improved Toilet, known as VIP toilets; a low cost, clean and safe toilet which any community can build cheaply and easily. 

In Pai village, the community are building four VIP toilets and want ongoing community education about WASH.

After seeing the toolkit during the WASH awareness activities in Taparapa, the Catholic Church priest asked for help to educate the community.

The toolkit launch, which took place in Port Moresby, Hela Province and Southern Highlands, was part of the recent celebration of Global Handwashing Day and involved a week of WASH awareness activities with schools, churches, communities and health facilities.

OSF Program Officer in Hela, Maria Peter, said: “When washing hands is a way of life then every time a child goes to the toilet or touches food, their parents tell them to wash their hands, and tries to ensure their surroundings are clean. Eventually, the concept of germs just clicks in their minds. But in PNG, a lot of people don’t know about germs and how they are spread.”

“Public health staff tell people that even though germs are invisible, they are actually all over our body,” says another OSF Program Officer, Marilyn Tabagua. “They explain that germs are on people’s hands, they are on the ground, in the air; that they are all over rubbish and faeces – animal and human.

“They talk about diseases that they’ve seen with their own eyes, diseases like typhoid and hepatitis, and say that despite what people tell you, they don’t come from sorcery.”

Dr James Kintwa, CEO of the Provincial Health Authority, said it is always easier when local leaders come on board and help them to spread the WASH word.

“People look up to leaders, so they’re our main focus group, in a way,” says Dr Kintwa, “So we’re stepping up training for local volunteers.”

In Southern Highlands and Gulf provinces, OSF staff also work with Provincial Health Authorities to run awareness sessions in remote areas of Papua New Guinea where diarrheal rates also remain very high.

As OSF environmental health officer Jonah Yvia neatly puts it, the WASH battle will not be won overnight, but there is no doubt that it is one worth fighting.

“We know that pipes and tanks can be expensive and can take a long time to install, but VIP toilets are cheap, easy to build and very safe,” Yvia stated.

“Washing hands and addressing waste in villages just needs people and a willingness to change behaviour. We want more people to take ownership of their own health and to take action to make their communities safe from water borne diseases.

“And we are confident that this brochure will help. These tool kits will also be critical to supporting Oil Search staff to promote these messages in their home communities.”

(OSF staff raise awareness on WASH)

Press release