Preterm babies in PNG to benefit from screening and treatment of childhood blindness

07 June 2019
A preterm baby in a special care nursery
UNICEF PNG/Dozier/2019
Preterm babies like this will have access to screening and treatment of childhood blindness.

PORT MORESBY, 6 JUNE 2019 – Thousands of preterm babies in PNG who could have been condemned to a life of visual impairment or blindness now have a chance to be properly screened and treated, thanks to an important partnership that will specifically address this issue.

UNICEF in collaboration with the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) have come together to tackle Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding disease that primarily affects premature infants.

“Without awareness, prevention and management, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 babies born preterm each year in PNG are at risk of succumbing to this disorder,” UNICEF Representative, David Mcloughlin stressed today at an event where UNICEF, UPNG and RANZCO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to increase awareness around ROP and promote prevention and management.

A general lack of awareness amongst service providers and care givers about ROP as an issue in many low and middle-income countries, including PNG, is a major factor contributing to preterm babies needlessly losing their vision. Preterm babies are currently not assessed for ROP in PNG.

The joint UNICEF-UPNG-RANZCO collaboration is a unique intervention that will be included in the Saving Lives - Spreading Smiles programme to ensure that preterm babies have access to screening and treatment of  ROP to prevent vision impairment and blindness.

“The importance of teaching a team of ophthalmologists, neonatologists and neonatal nurses all together is critical to the success of this activity. Retinopathy of prematurity is a complex disease that requires a team approach to maximize care and identify at-risk premature babies to be screened and treated in a timely fashion.” said Associate Professor Susan Carden, Royal Children’s Hospital, University of Melbourne.

Globally, each year, an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm. Approximately 2.4 million (16%) develop ROP and out of which 20,000 become blind from retinopathy of prematurity and an additional 12,300 will be left with visual impairment.

Under this partnership, the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Medicine will implement the patient care aspects of the project and roll it out across the country over the next three years where up to 25,000 babies born prematurely each year will benefit.

“The University of PNG, School of Medicine and Health Science thanks RANZCO for their role in the training and UNICEF for providing technical and financial support for this important program for PNG. Let’s we all pledge and work towards ‘No More Avoidable Blindness’ in Papua New Guinea,” said Prof Nakapi Tefuarani, Executive Dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The MOU signed today marks a key milestone in a partnership that began in 2018 where UNICEF, RANZCO and UPNG supported a training to upskill ophthalmologists, paediatricians, nurses and registrars in the identification and treatment of ROP.

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Noreen Chambers
Communication Specialist
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