Papua: Health on the Margins of Indonesia

By Catherine Patterson, Maternal and Child Health Intern for World Relief Indonesia Today began as Saturdays usually do in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia: with children calling at the front gate with berries and flowers.

Most are barefoot, wear ill-fitting clothes and come from the surrounding villages. Today, a little girl came with a badly infected lip. We sent her home with a tube of ointment and a few Rupiah in exchange for a bright orange and red bouquet.

Another boy came with juicy raspberries and one foot wrapped in a plastic bag.  After examining his foot, it was clear that jungle rot had started to take over his big toe.  We gave him sandals, provided a few antibiotics, and purchased his berries.

Indonesia has made great strides in addressing some of its most pressing health problems.  Since 1990, the number of children who die before age 5 has been reduced by half, and Indonesia is on target to meet many of its Millennium Development Goals.

Despite these advances, however, Papua Province continues to experience health standards below those in other areas. About 30% of children under age 5 suffer from malnutrition. While nationally, 17% of people live in poverty, in Papua, it is estimated that at least 30% of residents are poor. HIV is reaching epidemic proportions here with a reported 3% prevalence rate, and the situation is made worse by a lack of testing and treatment facilities.

The remote nature of this beautiful, mountainous land exacerbates the problems faced by people living with limited access to essential medicines and care. Stigma and fear of HIV/AIDS frustrates efforts to provide prevention and care. All too often, outbreaks of violence and tribal warfare interrupt regularly scheduled programs aimed at improving the health of Papuans.

Since 2008, World Relief has been reaching some of the most vulnerable in Papua’s Tolikara and Jayawijaya districts. Through its Mobilizing for Life:  Protecting Papua program and in partnership with the local church, local staff provide outreach and education to youth, men, and women on HIV/AIDS and teach communities how to protect themselves and stop the spread of the disease.

But there is still much to be done. Less than half of all births are attended by a skilled health worker, and far too many women die in childbirth each year. Despite substantial investments by foreign donors and the Indonesian government, Papua Province is the only area of Indonesian where the Human Development Index is falling. Our church partners have requested help to reverse this trend, and World Relief is currently exploring how we might reach this area with additional life-saving health messages.

As I think about the realities of Papua, my heart is hopeful. Her people are strong, proud, and resilient. They are eager to learn so they may take control of their health and strengthen their communities.

I think of the flower children, with their big eyes and bigger smiles. It is easy to be discouraged that at times, all we can offer is some ointment or antibiotics. But I am filled with hope and the knowledge that God offers much more through the love and grace of Jesus Christ. It has been my honor to stand with World Relief in Papua, Indonesia, as they seek to empower the local church to reach out to those who need health and healing in the highlands.

As World Health Day approaches on April 7, take a moment to stand with me for the health of people living in Papua and pray that God will bring healing and strength to all who need it in the mountains of Indonesia.

Photos from David Peth and Kirsten Pless

Catherine Patterson serve with World Relief as a volunteer. To learn more about World Relief Indonesia and the work happening there, click here.