Witnessing the effects of low birth weight in PNG

Burnet Institute

09 December, 2019

Image: Burnet Chairman, Ms Mary Padbury, witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of low birth weight in Kokopo, Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) program in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to better understand our work and meet those involved.

Only 160km separates the Australian mainland from its closest neighbour, PNG, but in many ways our countries are worlds apart.

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In Nonga I visited a birth facility, where I saw a lovely little baby boy named Joshua. Just a week old, he was tiny and fragile but very beautiful. He was being held by his grandmother, who was sitting on the bed. I wondered where his mother was but then saw her lying on the floor next to the bed. She was very ill with tuberculosis.

Joshua looked so small, and it was distressing to see his mother too ill to nurse him. In fact, many of the babies I saw in the birthing facilities looked very small. It was a stark reminder of why we’re there.

Shockingly, one in seven babies in PNG is born with a low birth weight.

As you may know, a healthy average birth weight is 3kg (or 6.5 pounds). A baby born between 2.5kg and 4.5kg is considered in the normal range. The World Health Organization officially classifies babies born below 2.5kg as low birth weight.

Low birth weight in Papua New Guinea

Image: We need to fully understand the causes of low birth weight in Papua New Guinea so that we can design effective and sustainable health interventions.

Low birth weight babies are in grave danger of dying through infections, poor nutrition and other complications. Even if a low birth weight baby survives, the baby can have can have significant problems within the first few years of life.

A baby born small may have trouble gaining weight, obtaining adequate nutrition, and developing a strong immune system. As a result, the baby may suffer chronic health problems throughout their life, and have a shorter life expectancy.

The real tragedy is that most of the deaths of low birth weight babies in PNG are preventable. But in order to plan and implement interventions that will correctly address the problem, we first need to thoroughly understand the causes.

We already know many of the factors that cause low birth weight, but there are still a lot of things we don’t know. We know nutrition, infection, and anaemia in mothers can be key factors in leading to low birth weight in babies.

We have to spend the time to do the research in order to know precisely the causes of low birth weight in PNG. Only with this thorough knowledge can we be sure that any interventions proposed are properly targeted to help address this issue.

I was only in PNG for a short time, but it is a trip that is etched in my memory. To see the little kids during my visit, and to understand the difference we could make - it would be incredibly important for the future of the country.

I would really encourage you, if you can, to donate to the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Christmas appeal.

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Ms Mary Padbury Chairman, Burnet Institute Board

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Burnet Institute

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