Daily power blackouts a reality for our scientists in Kokopo

Burnet Institute

07 June, 2016

IMAGE: Lab researcher Ruth Fidelis works under challenging conditions in Kokopo

Power outages, up to twice-daily, in Kokopo, Papua New Guinea (PNG) can put at-risk blood and other samples being collected from pregnant mothers and babies as part of Burnet’s Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) research program.

Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies is part of the determined effort to tackle PNG’s appalling maternal and child mortality statistics – 1,500 maternal deaths from complications from childbirth each year, and 5,000 newborn deaths in the first month of life.

A lack of a backup power generator for the HMHB lab means laboratory manager, Ruth Fidelis and her team often race against the clock during a power outage to find an alternate source to prevent the precious samples defrosting or being ruined.

“The samples are frozen at minus 12 degrees, and in a hot, tropical area like Kokopo, the lab can rise to 30 degrees within half an hour of the air conditioning going off,” Ruth said.

“It’s at a really critical level when the freezer goes to minus 10 – then the sample is at risk.

“It’s just the reality of life here – you cross your fingers and pray that the power’s gonna come back. I wish we had one of those big UPS (uninterrupted power sources) that could last the whole day. With one of those, we would be fine.”

You can help Ruth and her team save the HMHB samples by giving to Burnet’s Kokopo Lab Equipment Campaign.

A backup power generator worth $6,000 is just one piece of equipment urgently needed to upgrade the Kokopo laboratory so it can continue its life-saving work of researching causes of mother and baby mortality. Other items include diagnostic tests for malaria, TB, low birth weight and anemia, as well as training for local personnel.

IMAGE: Researchers collect samples for the Kokopo laboratory

Crisis at the lab!

Recently, a power outage at midday on a Sunday turned into “a bit of a crisis” for Ruth and the HMHB team. Power was also out at nearby St Mary’s Hospital and the back-up power source gave just two hours coverage – but no more. As two team members searched Kokopo for a generator, Ruth packed the lab freezer with ice packs, and took some samples home to her fridge. A generator was sourced at the nearby Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort but it wasn’t working either. A kind hotel worker then travelled to his home village in the bush, and returned two hours later at 4.30pm with his own personal generator for the lab to use. It was finally hooked up and turned on at 5pm – five hours into the crisis – but it’s deafening noisy motor caused distress in the labour and newborn ward right next door. At 6pm, with darkness falling, the power finally came back on and the crisis was averted.

Ruth and her team play a key role in ensuring that the samples, gathered from women who walk long distances for antenatal care, are preserved under the most challenging of conditions at times.

Can you help Ruth protect these precious samples by giving to Burnet’s Kokopo Lab Equipment Campaign?


Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Doctor Elizabeth Peach

Research Project Manager, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies




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