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‘Hepatitis B Free’ frees PNG from killer disease

Posted on Dec 10th 2013 by in Health, News

Exhausted, wet, lugging heavy loads, Dr Alice Lee and her team of doctors and nurses trek through the Papua New Guinea jungle in pursuit of a silent killer. 

Dr Alice Lee with a young PNG patient

Dr Alice Lee with a young PNG patient

Hepatitis B afflicts some 350 million people around the world,with a third of people affected living in the Western-Pacific and South-East Asia. The virus can bring on liver cancer or cirrhosis, and kills an estimated one million people each year.

Hepatitis B Free, with the ongoing help of the Inner West and  Lugarno Lions Clubs who have jointly donated $5000 to the project, will deliver thousands of free Hepatitis B vaccinations to remote villages throughout Papua New Guinea.

Associate Professor Alice Lee, a Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist and Clinical Associate Professor at Macquarie University, and a committee member of the Sydney Special Olympics Inner- West Lions Club, leads Hepatitis B Free.  “Hepatitis is the number one cause of liver cancer globally,” says Dr Lee.

“The Pacific nation has a well-developed health and vaccination program but the coverage rate of the vaccines, particularly to PNG’s remote communities, is very low. Many of the villages and hamlets where Hepatitis B flourishes are simply too difficult or expensive for the government’s vaccination programs to reach. It seemed like a very simple thing to fix,” Dr Lee said.

The first seeds of Hepatitis B Free were planted when a teenager from the remote village of Itokama arrived at Dr Lee’s clinic and was diagnosed with the deadly disease. Owing to his youth, he was not showing any symptoms. But that was no guarantee he was healthy.

“It’s called the silent killer because most people don’t realise they have it until it’s seriously advanced,” Dr Lee said.

In July 2012 Lee and her team found a way to the remote village. “It was an area you could only access by light aircraft, and then on foot through the jungles,” she recalls. “The community consisted of a series of hamlets, connected by pathways through the jungle, which were really nothing more than dirt tracks. And there was no water, electricity, or any form of sewerage. So we ended up roughing it for a week,” she says.

Over seven gruelling days they managed to vaccinate 3,000 people and, Lee hopes, eradicate Hepatitis B from the village. They returned from PNG believing “that this is something we could build an organisation around,” says Lee.

“We were quite committed that this should be an international charity organisation, allowing us to deliver cheap vaccines to other areas where there is very limited access to health services.”

Despite the arduous journey and difficult conditions, Lee and her team have returned several times, laying down plans to vaccinate thousands more people. “It’s been a wonderful, spiritual, eye-opening experience,” she says.

“There is no question of the physical discomforts we endure. But it’s irrelevant compared to the constant and permanent discomforts that these people and these communities have. So any little difference we can make, by far exceeds any of the minor discomforts that any of us have for a very short time in our lives.”

Granted enough funding, they hope to make 4 trips in the next year. “There’s so much need in PNG,” she says. “And as people become aware of our activities, there are more requests for our services. We keep on saying, ‘Yes’, but our funding is very limited, as we’re a bunch of doctors and nurses with no financial backup, and this is being done in our own time and almost all at our own expense.”

Its early days for Hepatitis B Free, but Lee and her team are full of energy and high hopes. “I think we can vaccinate hundreds and thousands of patients who would never otherwise see a Hepatitis B vaccine,” she says.

The organisation also hopes to provide vaccinations for measles, tetanus, and a host of other deadly childhood infections. Meanwhile, the boy who started it all, Kerry, has returned to Itokama. “He’s remained well,” Lee says.“He wants to be a doctor, and build a hospital in the village.”

Anyone wanting to know more about Hepatitis B Free is encouraged to contact the President of Sydney Special Olympics Inner- West Lions Club Tony Moore on 0411 546 308 or Elvio Munzone on 0418651549

This is an extract from an article written by Mike Safi, Lugarno Lions Club, and originally published in the Newsletter of District 201N5 (December 2013)

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