Reflecting on importance of 56th PNG Medical Symposium

Image: Burnet Institute staff at the 56th PNG Medical Symposium. Credit: Burnet Institute

Burnet Institute Senior Research Fellow Dr Stefanie Vaccher based in PNG, reflects on the importance of the 56th Papua New Guinean Medical Symposium held in Port Moresby, PNG from 5 to 7 September 2022.

I had the privilege to both attend the 56th Papua New Guinean Medical Symposium held last week, and present findings of some recent work undertaken here, a literature review of the most effective ways COVID-19 antigen rapid diagnostic tests could be used in PNG.

The group organising the meeting - the Medical Society of PNG - pre-dates PNG's independence by over a decade. This in itself highlights the depth and breadth of medical research that is being conducted in PNG, by Papua New Guineans.

This symposium allowed locally led research to be the focus of the meeting and ensured that future research in PNG would benefit from the sharing of new ideas, successes, and strategies for overcoming challenges.

With a recently elected government and a new 10-year National Health Plan, the conference was well-timed to address priority health areas and issues of local and national significance.

Despite the conference theme being around COVID-19, and the undeniable impact of COVID-19 on the health system more broadly, the presentations covered a wide range of topics including Japanese encephalitis, childhood nutrition and stunting, tuberculosis, cervical cancer screening, and oral hygiene.

Presentations gave a good overview of the wide range of health issues that affect PNG, and the conference was a valuable opportunity for clinicians and researchers from across the country to come together and discuss their work in a way they haven't been able to for the past two years.

Image: One of the symposium presentations was about a homemade device to measure the length of a newborn baby's foot as a proxy for low birth weight. Credit: Stefanie Vaccher

The ingenuity that was on display, from a homemade device to measure the length of a newborn baby's foot as a proxy for low birth weight, to new malaria surveillance strategies, provided valuable lessons to all attendees.

There were also critical insights into local issues that are not always evident at other international conferences.

For instance, the pervasiveness of betel nut (buai) chewing in PNG and the myriad health problems it can cause was a common theme across several presentations. This created links between previously siloed fields, such as dentistry and harm reduction, and helped develop new ways of thinking about endemic issues.

Furthermore, the opportunity to learn from other researchers in PNG about local cultural beliefs and kastom in the areas where they were working was invaluable.

For instance, the gifts one researcher brought for village elders as a mark of respect, or the importance of visiting the community before the study began to not only meet with key leaders, but also to conduct general community education and awareness, and give people time to get to know the research team and consider what questions they may have.

Image: The conference also included stunning displays of some of PNG's many cultures. Credit: Stefanie Vaccher

The discussion time at the end of presentation sessions gave more people the chance to have their voices heard.

While attendees did not always agree with one another, even on fundamental issues such as the importance of COVID-19 vaccination in PNG, the format of the conference allowed people to share their views and find like-minded individuals and potential new collaborators.

The shared social connections over many lunches, dinners, and cups of tea strengthened old friendships and built new ones, a fundamental part of any conference.

Image: The symposium provided an opportunity to strengthen old friendships and build new ones. Credit: Burnet Institute

Alongside stunning displays of some of PNG's many cultures both during presentations and at the final dinner, the whole conference was a fascinating learning experience.

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