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Baby bundles of success in PNG

8 Apr 2024

While building a school in Papua New Guinea, carpenter Barry Kirby became aware of the region’s incredibly high rate of preventable maternal and newborn fatality. 12 years and two degrees later, he returned as a doctor. Now 10 years into his new career, Barry and RN Kila Dobo are seeing real change through the work of their not-for-profit charity, Hands of Rescue.

If you empow­er local peo­ple to explore local chal­lenges and come up with local solu­tions, you can make an enor­mous dif­fer­ence. That’s the mot­to of Dr Bar­ry Kir­by AO and RN Kila Dobo. 

The pair’s Baby Bun­dle ini­tia­tive has encour­aged moth­ers to choose a super­vised deliv­ery. The Baby Bun­dle is a plas­tic baby bath filled with prod­ucts includ­ing cloth nap­pies, san­i­tary items and toi­letries, baby clothes, a sarong, and thongs, and it can be col­lect­ed by women if they elect a super­vised deliv­ery at the local health centre.

We start­ed our incen­tive scheme at three health cen­tres ini­tial­ly, which I must admit sound­ed a crazy thing to do at the time,” says Barry. 

But the moth­ers imme­di­ate­ly respond­ed and super­vised deliv­er­ies sky­rock­et­ed by over 100%. Moth­ers and health staff were hap­py, so we rolled it out to 15 health cen­tres. Twelve months lat­er, we had an 85% increase in super­vised deliv­er­ies across those centres.

But the most reward­ing result was we had gone from eigh­teen record­ed deaths to just four in those health cen­tres over the same peri­od. I don’t know any­where else in the world they’ve done that.”

To date, through their not-for-prof­it char­i­ty, The Hands of Res­cue, the pair has deliv­ered more than 8,000 Baby Bun­dles to 25 health centres. 

The Baby Bun­dles are just one exam­ple of find­ing a prac­ti­cal solu­tion to the bar­ri­ers that moth­ers have told the pair about. 

When local women shared the prac­ti­cal rea­sons why they were giv­ing birth in vil­lages rather than at their local health cen­tre, the pair sprang into action. 

Some of the vil­lages are so remote, it can take days to walk to a health cen­tre, or they have to use a boat,” says Kila. To deal with that issue, we are con­tin­u­ing to build and com­mis­sion new moth­ers’ wait­ing hous­es, attached to health cen­tres, where preg­nant women can come ear­ly and can live while they are wait­ing for their babies to be born.

We’ve ren­o­vat­ed count­less labour wards and con­struct­ed one TB ward. The total ren­o­va­tion of a tiny health cen­tre at Waila­gi on Good­e­nough Island is an exam­ple of the com­mu­ni­ty tak­ing own­er­ship of a project.”

For years, that health cen­tre had no light, two beds (one not work­ing prop­er­ly) and a roof that was cav­ing in. Water dripped on the women in labour. Now they have a two-bed deliv­ery room and a four-bed post-natal ward, com­plete with an ensuite and a laundry. 

Dur­ing con­struc­tion, the women of the vil­lage and health staff col­lect­ed and deliv­ered sand and grav­el for the con­crete, while the men dug trench­es and helped erect and assem­ble the frame. Even the chil­dren got involved, car­ry­ing rocks for the sep­tic absorp­tion trench.

It was fun and a great com­mu­ni­ty spir­it per­me­at­ed the entire project.” 

It was up in 13 days. That was 12 months ago. The morale of the staff remains very high and we’ve not had one emer­gency call from that new cen­tre so far,” says Barry.

Peo­ple need to take own­er­ship,” says Kila. 

As we point­ed out to those men, This is for you, your wives, your sis­ters.’ To get the reac­tion we need in com­mu­ni­ties, though, we have to build up trust. To gain trust you have to do what you say you are going to do, that’s how peo­ple start to trust. And that’s what we did.”

Bar­ry and Kila’s solu­tions-focused think­ing has also formed the foun­da­tion of their Safe Moth­er Pro­gramme, their Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice, edu­ca­tion and train­ing pro­grams for health-cen­tre staff, involv­ing the com­mu­ni­ty in deci­sion-mak­ing – and more recent­ly focus­ing on pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive male role models.

This has includ­ed a TV series, It takes a vil­lage’, which encour­ages men to be sup­port­ive part­ners who encour­age their wives to have the baby in a health centre. 

The series uses sto­ry­telling to illus­trate the ben­e­fits of seek­ing care ear­ly and pro­motes the active role com­mu­ni­ties can play in mater­nal health, for exam­ple by iden­ti­fy­ing the risks and dan­ger signs early. 

Bar­ry would like a backer to sup­port the sec­ond series, which he says will go a long way towards address­ing ingrained cul­tur­al attitudes.

Bar­ry and I love our work, going out and help­ing the women,” says Kila. We do what needs to be done. This also includes train­ing the local staff to do the same and I hold the local staff in high regard.

We install solar lights, run­ning water and fly screens, cur­tains for moth­ers’ pri­va­cy, scrub down dirty labour wards, fix drip stands, repair [the] labour ward bed… what­ev­er is need­ed to make the place moth­er-friend­ly and where staff can per­form their best… If a moth­er was to suf­fer or die from a pre­ventable death, it’s pos­si­ble it could have been a sim­ple some­thing with a sim­ple prac­ti­cal solution.”

Bar­ry, who is also the pilot of the plane, the engi­neer and the clean­er, agrees. 

A rur­al GP out here can’t just be trained in med­i­cine,” he says. Come to think of it, my back­ground as a tradie was a per­fect pathway.

We live in the air­craft hangar and take no wages for our­selves,” he says. All this work we do is made pos­si­ble through the sup­port of dona­tions from PNG and Australia.”

For more infor­ma­tion vis­it www​.the​hand​sofres​cue​.org​.au

Inter­est­ed in shar­ing your expe­ri­ence of work­ing in remote health? Is there a top­ic you’d like to read about? Sub­mit an enquiry with your sto­ry or suggestion.