FEDERAL Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch today welcomed the Government’s support of his motion to take more action to reduce the tuberculosis threat to Papua New Guinea from affecting the Torres Strait.
Mr Entsch met with Health Minister Tanya Plibersek and senior AusAID officials today (February 7) to reinforce his view that frontline health services on Saibai and Boigu islands were vital in preventing TB from spreading to the Torres Strait.
He described the meeting as productive, saying the Government’s acknowledgement of the threat was a move in the right direction.
“I appreciate the support of Minister Plibersek, who has just taken over the health portfolio,” Mr Entsch said.
“She approached me yesterday to speak about the issue. She understands where I was coming from and she was concerned to hear about the situation in the Torres Strait and PNG.
“She promised the Government would support my motion and true to her word, they did. I look forward to working very closely with the Government and AusAID to make sure we get some positive outcomes.”
Mr Entsch welcomed commitments to continue providing funding to improve facilities and services at Daru Hospital in Papua New Guinea to better treat patients with TB.
But he said Queensland Health’s decision to close TB clinics on Saibai and Boigu islands, both of which lie close to PNG and the Western Province, needed to be reconsidered urgently to prevent patients from spreading the disease to the Torres Strait.
“While I understand that building capacity on Daru is important, we need to act on protecting Saibai and Boigu islands,” Mr Entsch said.
“There is a serious risk of more patients desperate for treatment getting in a dinghy and going to these islands for treatment, as opposed to making the long trip to Daru, where they would not be confident of receiving treatment.
“At the end of the day the villagers do not have roads, they do not have phones, they do not have internet. They only know where they want to go for treatment and that is to the frontline services on Saibai and Boigu.
“I would hope and expect that we would continue those services on those islands until we are confident that Daru is fully equipped to handle this health crisis and until patients stop coming to Saibai and Boigu islands for treatment.
“The one thing we cannot do is withdraw our services in the battle against this disease, no matter where it is contracted.”
Mr Entsch said many Torres Strait islanders objected to PNG patients seeking treatment in their region but both state and federal governments needed to ensure services were available.
“I share their concern about the risk of people carrying TB into the Torres Strait but until facilities and services improve in PNG, patients will continue to arrive,” he said.
“We need to ensure there is an appropriate level of funding specifically for the treatment of TB patients from PNG so there is not a strain on health budgets for the Torres Strait.
“For instance, there needs to be an isolation unit to treat contagious diseases to minimise the risk of cross-infection and give Torres Strait islanders a sense of safety so they don’t feel exposed.”
Mr Entsch said the Government also needed to consider pooling resources with agencies currently providing medical treatment and research in PNG, including the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre and YWAM medical ships.
“We need satellite hubs to treat people along the PNG coastline so patients can be treated closer to their homes,” he said.
He said he appreciated the challenges facing AusAID officials in dealing with the TB threat.
“It is an issue that will take a long time and a lot of resources to fix,” Mr Entsch said.
“There is an issue in patients sharing prescribed drugs with their extended family who also suspect they have TB. When this happens, the patients do not take the full course needed to treat them properly. The disease builds up a resistance to drugs.
“It is a real challenge and we must ensure a greater availability of drugs.”
Mr Entsch has accepted an invitation to visit Daru hospital in the near future to inspect the facility and speak with medical staff.
Click hear to listen to Warren Entsch’s interview with SBS: