With a very kind donation of tiny blue, pink, and white woolen clothes from one of the VSO volunteers’ mum, Vi Mowat, we went to the hospital to give the new Mothers a little present for their new arrivals. The women, with their newly born babies swaddled in blankets and baby bilums, looked at us with faces that told a myriad stories. After what had no doubt been an emotional experience they peaked under blankets and sat thoughtfully as we gave away the miniature clothes for miniature people. The mums smiled as they showed off their little babies and were pleased with the specially knitted outfits to keep them cozy in the cooler Southern Highlands climate.
The reality is that the women in hospital are the lucky ones; the majority give birth in the village with no medical support, sometimes on the side of the road trying to get to the hospital, and often with no sterile equipment or pain relief. The remoteness of many of the villages in PNG means that access to health clinics can be impossible for some – without proper roads and infrastructures this isn’t likely to improve. Skilled attendance at birth is low, mainly due to the shortage of midwives but there are also very low levels of trust in public services. Going to hospital here really is often seen as a last resort.
With 400 babies being born every week and 20 being looked after in the special care nursery at one time, it is a busy and invaluable service. Unlike the UK, women in PNG tend to have their children young rather than later in life. One of the wonderful initiatives happening within the nursery is that mums are encouraged to express breast milk and cup feed their premature babies every three hours. This doesn’t happen anywhere else and ensures the babies are getting breast milk despite being in special care.
There is a lot of amazing work being done to support midwives for the future in PNG. The Mother and Child Health Initiative, funded by the Australian Government in partnership with the PNG Department of Health, provide clinical midwifery facilitators to work with the local midwifery educators to raise the standards of education theory and practice. Jane Connell is one of those facilitators: “For the last two years we have trained thirty new midwives but this is nowhere near enough. There are four units teaching midwifery in PNG but the reality is that there isn’t enough teaching space to train up more. There is also no incentive to become a midwife as they don’t get an increase in pay.“
The VSO health team is also doing amazing work training midwives in PNG. In Madang, Gert van Den Berg is providing capacity building for student midwives, mentoring, lecturing and using his expertise to help support the team due to lack of obstetricians.