03:04am Wednesday 23 October 2019

Pathologists join army to fight infectious diseases in PNG

They are Professor Tim Inglis and Associate Professor Liam O’Connor, of UWA’s School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.  Both are reservists in the Australian Army’s 3rd Health Support Battalion, working with Pacific Partnership 2013, a humanitarian and assistance mission in the Asia-Pacific.

Professor Inglis works in remote regions of WA as the State’s Public Health Microbiologist.  But as an Army Major, he relished experience further afield – a Major Inglis, he was deployed on HMAS Tobruk to help people in the towns of Wewak and Vanimo on PNG’s northern coast where he worked with local health carers to improve their pathology procedures and ability to identify and treat infectious diseases.  In Vanimo, he was joined by Major O’Connor.

“Some of the things we focussed on were fundamentals in Australia, such as helping local Papua New Guineans with hospital procedures and data tracking of complex tests, including biopsies,” Professor Inglis said.  “These aren’t costly or complicated but can improve the quality of pathological work immensely.”

Major Inglis also helped to set up a surgical pathology service at Wewak Hospital to reduce turnaround times for biopsy results.  The only current service is in the PNG capital, Port Moresby – and the backlog often means people have to wait up to 12 months for test results.

“As a first step, we asked Wewak Hospital lab manager Steven Tiwara to prepare 10 different samples for testing,” Major Inglis said.  “Using the standard procedures and laboratory systems we have in Australia, Steven was able to prepare the samples quickly and set up a functional data tracking chain.  I organised to ship the samples back to Australia where we can provide test results in weeks, not months.”

Major Inglis said his Pacific Partnership 2013 deployment was one of the highlights of his military career.

“To help in PNG – where there is a large burden of infectious diseases – is challenging and confronting but profoundly rewarding because you realise your training can help in a place like this.

“For example, we were able to get cultures from a newborn infant that was struggling to survive.  By using a simple digital camera and the blood culture system we use in Australia, we were able to provide the results to a paediatrician within a day and have the right antibiotics prescribed.”

Despite the large workload the local health practitioners face daily, Major Inglis hopes the focus on training and sustained improvement of practices will continue to make a difference.

“On top of the clinical assistance and teaching work we did, I hope that this mission can inform junior Medical Officers across the ADF and build their skills sets so if they ever need to respond to an incident in the region, they come in with real world lessons behind them.”

Media references

Brett Tizard (School Manager, UWA School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine)  (+61 8)  9346 3814
Professor Tim Inglis (UWA School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine)  (+61 8)  9346 3461
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs)  (+61 8)  6488 3229  /  (+61 4) 00 700 783

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