By DAVID HILMERS – Chief Medical Officer
Greetings to all our friends and supporters,
The New Year brings hope for relief from the ravages of COVID and for lifting of some of the travel restrictions that have hampered our efforts to combat hepatitis. Travel in and out of Australia is now open to both residents and tourists which allows our volunteers greater access to our project sites. While some of the locations, such as Kiribati, have partially opened to selected visitors, there are still quarantine rules in place upon arrival that complicate travel. We are hopeful, however, that we will be able to visit some of our partner nations later in 2022. We are very anxious to see our colleagues once again and to continue the progress that was being made before the start of the pandemic. We are very grateful for your encouragement, gifts and prayers, particularly over the past two years.
We would like to provide you with a few country-specific updates:
Tonga. This small Pacific Island nation is one of our newest projects. Our volunteer team visited the main island in March, 2020, just as the epidemic was beginning, in order to start a new hepatitis treatment program. Many of you are aware of the volcanic eruption that occurred in January, 2022 which caused a thick layer of ash to cover the islands, contaminate water supplies and sever the only fiber-optic communication link. Shortly after the eruption, a tsunami struck, leaving destruction in its wake. If this disaster was not enough, the international relief effort brought COVID along with much needed supplies. Up until the eruption, there had only been once case of COVID in the country. Over the past month there has been an additional 234 cases which has strained the local medical system. A lockdown was imposed that has further complicated clean up efforts. We were relieved to hear from our colleagues in Tonga that they and their families are safe. The lockdown should be eased soon and about two-thirds of the population has been vaccinated against COVID. Work on the fiber-optic network is nearly complete.
Kiribati. After opening its borders, there has been local transmission of COVID for the first time since the start of the pandemic, necessitating a lockdown. Hopefully, this will soon be under control. Our team has been involved in the development of the National Hepatitis Plan which incorporates our goal of reducing the maternal to child transmission of hepatitis B. Training sessions for local medical professionals continue. Dr. Thomas Russell, our program director and a native of Kiribati, continues to manage our efforts to expand hepatitis treatment from the main island of Tarawa to the outer islands.
Papua New Guinea. Our hepatitis activities at Siroga clinic have centered around case-based lectures, re-supply of hepatitis B medications, and training for laboratory personnel. We are excited about possible opportunities to begin projects in the very remote Central Highlands region, the capital of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.
Myanmar. We have been very encouraged by the progress made in the Putao project where nearly 300 patients, many of them co-infected with hepatitis C and HIV, have been started or have completed a 12 or 24-week course of medication to cure hepatitis C. In regular on-line meetings our team has reviewed each patient that has been placed on treatment in order to ensure the proper selection of medication and duration of therapy. This has been a truly amazing project in which our partner, Medical Action Myanmar, has continued to provide top-notch care to these patients despite the political strife that has beset the country. We feel truly honored to be involved in this program.
North Korea. Our most extensive project to date has been in the DPRK. Unfortunately, we have received no updates from our friends and colleagues who labored beside us. We continue to keep them in our thoughts and prayers as we wait for the lifting of travel restrictions.
We cannot thank you enough for your continued support, without which we could not continue to provide the services that we do. We send our best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2022 to each of you.
David C. Hilmers