Children play at St. John Church in Samenage in Indonesia's Papua province. A church foundation has teamed with the government to provide healthcare to the remote village. (Photo by Flori Geong)
When nurse Geno Wetipo first visited Samenage in Indonesia's Papua province in December 2013, she recalled seeing thin-limbed children with distended bellies.
She arrived in an area in the throes of a health calamity — some 60 people, mostly children, had died during the preceding months. Wetipo says the deaths were not due to a mysterious plague or an outbreak of illness, but simply to the lack of availability to adequate healthcare.
The lack of access to medical care continues to plague the region, she said, as evidenced by 43 preventable deaths in nearby Nduga district late last year. The area, comprised of several small villages has a population of about 5,000 people.
"When I came here for the first time, almost all the children had bloated tummies. When I diagnosed them, they had parasitic worms inside their stomachs," says Wetipo. On that first trip, she traveled only with basic medicines such as penicillin and other antibiotics.
A spate of 12 deaths in Samenage late last year along with the Nduga deaths renewed fears that a greater tragedy in the region was looming, she told ucanews.com. A dearth of medical workers and limited healthcare facilities remain a major concern here and in other remote areas of Papua, she says.
Wetipo, based at a hospital in Wamena, continually visits the area with a team of medical practitioners sponsored by the Lotus Heart of Papua Foundation, which was founded by Father John Djonga, a noted human rights activist in the region.
While the foundation's primary mission is to promote justice and peace, it also provides medical funding to assist people who otherwise would have little-to-no access to healthcare.
In 2013, most of the children died from parasitic diseases, Wetipo said. Children rarely bathed; there was no soap available for bathing and hand washing, she recalls. But on her most recent visit in February, "I could hardly find a child with such a condition," she says.
Naomi Kwambre, 28, a foundation staffer, says a team of people from Christ the Redeemer Church in Hepuba do their best to monitor and provide healthcare to the people in Samenage, but can only visit the region twice a year due to the high cost of travel.
In order to reach the area, their team of seven people needs to charter a small plane for a 12-minute flight at a cost of US$1,500, she says.
The mortality rate in the area remains high because of the lack of access to medical care, she says.
Naomi Kwambre (white shirt) and Geno Wetipo, (blue shirt), volunteers with the church-run Lotus Heart of Papua Foundation, with children of Samenage village in Papua's district of Yahukimo. (Photo by Flori Geong)
"Our people here die without any health services," says Emanuel Esema, a tribal leader in Haleroma village in Samenage. Villagers often go years without seeing a doctor or medical practitioner, he said.
Naftali Yogi, head of Papua's social welfare agency of Papua province, said the government has started a cooperative program with local churches this year to help bridge the region's healthcare gap. Funding is being provided to church-run organizations to provide medical care to those most in need.
Funding also is being provided for community healthcare education, Yogi says.
"We lack not only health service, but also education," says Esema. For many years, the local elementary school did not have a single teacher.
But in June last year the school began regular activities after the local authorities appointed a new principal, who with the help of two volunteers, started a school from scratch, albeit with limited faiclities.
Wetipo says she and the other healthcare volunteers also teach children on healthy living and basic hygiene.
"I teach the children to bathe using soap," she said.