Burnet research being presented at PNG Medical Symposium

Burnet Institute

08 September, 2022

PNG Prime Minister, the Honourable James Marape, at the symposium on Monday.

The impact of COVID-19 on leading diseases and medical treatment in Papua New Guinea is a major focus of this week’s Medical Society of PNG’s Symposium in Port Moresby.

Read on for updates from the conference.


Image: Dr Stefanie Vaccher presenting at the 56th Medical Symposium.

Dr Stefanie Vaccher presented a literature review looking at the most effective ways COVID-19 antigen rapid diagnostic tests could be used in PNG.

The review found further discussions with both health and non-health partners is critical to understand gaps, priorities for future work, and impact on future testing strategies in PNG.

Rapid antigen tests are best for identifying people with high viral load, those who are highly infectious.

Testing and interpretation of results is situation dependent - good surveillance information is needed to understand background prevalence of COVID-19 in a particular location, as well as contextual knowledge of the implications for someone of testing positive.


Burnet’s flagship initiative and the highly collaborative Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) project, based in Kokopo, East New Britain, was just one of many research updates on Day 2 of the conference.

HMHB Principal Investigator Dr Michelle Scoullar said in previously published research they found high rates of Mycoplasma genitalium and other reproductive tract infections in pregnant women.

Today, Dr Scoullar spoke about what impact these infections have on adverse birth outcomes in her presentation, High burden of reproductive reproductive tract infections in pregnancy increases risk of adverse birth outcomes in East New Britain Province, PNG.

East New Britain Research Team leader Pele Melepia presented on strengthening mental health psychosocial support systems and services for children and adolescents in PNG, a study being conducted for UNICEF.

Mental health and child wellbeing is an important priority for PNG, and as Ms Melepia outlined, it’s important to have a multi-sectoral approach - across the health, education, justice, and social welfare sectors - to identify any gaps in services and how best they can be improved from clinical, prevention and promotion perspectives.

Research Officer Priscah Hezeri gave her first conference talk outlining the importance of quality maternal and newborn care.

The work she presented was from the ‘Gutpela Helt Sevis Stadi - Helti mama bel, helti beibi stadi’ (‘Quality of pregnancy, childbirth, and newborn health services study - Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Research Program’) - a study based in East New Britain, PNG.

The Gutpela Sevis study uses a unique ‘Partnership Defined Quality’ approach to empower both communities and health facilities to work together in identifying and defining quality, and subsequently problem-solving strategies to improve quality.

Medical Laboratory Scientist Nomin-Dora Tenakanai presented interim results from the EZARET Study: Exploring Zoonotic Association and Risks for Extrapulmonary Tuberculosis in PNG.

This study explores bacteriological testing of extrapulmonary TB (EPTB) - TB occurring in the body somewhere other than the lungs - including whether any TB found is drug resistant or of zoonotic origin.

In the past there has been limited data on the causes of the comparatively high incidence of EPTB in PNG, which this work is seeking to change.

A key change we are starting to see thanks to the study is that more clinical staff are taking samples for testing from people who present with symptoms of TB lymphadenitis (enlarged lymph nodes). This wasn’t done routinely in all facilities before the study, with diagnosis often based on symptoms that sometimes have other causes.

Image: Members of Burnet’s Daru team (left to right) Naomi Pank, Alexa Murray, Oretha Mehngonzeh, Clodia Manorh and Ruth Bala.

Burnet Institute staff based in Daru gave a series of presentations on the Daru TB program.

Clodia Manorh presented on the clinical aspects of the Daru TB program, focusing on the fluoroquinolone-resistant TB cases in Daru between 2013 and 2020.

Naomi Pank spoke about the public health aspect, focusing on a community outbreak investigation of fluoroquinolone-resistant TB in Daru.

While identification of the outbreak of fluoroquinolone-resistant TB was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the prompt response by the Daru TB team was critical in this outbreak investigation.

Interestingly, mixed TB cases were identified in the same households, suggesting there was greater transmission outside of households in Western Province.

And Ruth Bala presented on the peer education and counselling aspect of the program, focusing on the challenges identified by TB patients during counselling sessions.

Scientific Officer Benishar Kombut from the PNG Institute of Medical Research spoke about their field evaluation of a Burnet-developed malaria test called LAMP for detecting Plasmodium vivax infections during pregnancy.

Senior molecular scientist Rebecca Narokobi spoke about the STRIVE PNG project which aims to strengthen vector borne disease surveillance and response by strengthening molecular surveillance capacity and generating molecular diagnostic data to monitor vector borne pathogens.

She presented preliminary dengue and arbovirus data generated from eight surveillance sentinel sites across the country.

Preliminary findings indicated that one per cent of febrile cases presenting during 2019 to 2020 at health facilities were dengue infections.

Cases were detected intermittently during this period and DENV1, DENV3 & DENV4 were found to be in circulation, with DENV3 more common and found primarily in Morobe Province.

Molecular data also showcased a possible Chikungunya outbreak in Sandaun Province between September and November 2020. These results are integrated onto the STRIVE-Tupaia platform which allows decision makers to review, interpret and respond to outbreaks in their province.


The 56th Medical Symposium was opened with an inspiring speech from PNG’s Prime Minister, the Honourable James Marape on 5 September.

Burnet Institute acknowledges the ongoing commitment and support from the Prime Minister for medical research and public health programs.

Burnet’s PNG Country Director, Dr Kudakwashe Chani, said the symposium brings together the medical research community in PNG.

“This is the first symposium since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing a renewed sense of the need to bridge the gap between research, policy and implementation,” he said.

“Burnet Institute in PNG is pleased to be part of the symposium to share work that we collaborated on with other key stakeholders in PNG and in the region, and to contribute to local evidence.”

Thirty-four Burnet staff and researchers are attending the symposium from PNG and Australia, some of whom will be presenting this collaborative work.

The topics they are presenting on include maternal and child health, tuberculosis, dengue, and the most effective way to use COVID-19 antigen rapid diagnostic tests in PNG.