Themes: Health

Medicine and nutritional change in Papua New Guinea


Health Care

Modern health care provision is very limited in rural areas of Papua New Guinea.  Aid Posts have been introduced but these are few and far between, often a long walk or a day’s canoe-trip away.  Those that do exist are usually poorly equipped, with very limited supplies of medicines. The health services rarely have vehicles for patient transportation, and health workers find it hard to send out medical teams. Because of these and other deficiencies, infant mortality is high, and average life expectancy is 60-65 years of age.


Traditional cures and treatments

Villagers in rural Papua New Guinea rely on traditional remedies alongside modern medicines.  They obtain these from the forest, extracted from plants and fungi, many of which are used as antiseptic treatments or for combating diseases such as malaria.  Such medicines are not always effective, but many of them work very well indeed, even though not scientifically tested. 

Many drug treatments were first discovered in rainforest plants, so working with indigenous knowledge is likely to produce further medical advancements. In village communities, traditional medicines are often used in conjunction with ritual and magic, a form of complimentary medicine. Disease is often attributed to malignant sorcery or hostile forest spirits. These can be defeated and removed by appealing for help to ancestors and friendly spirits.



In a natural situation rural tribes generally eat very healthily. Most rurally located Papua New Guineans are subsistence farmers, with their vegetable diet supplemented by hunting and fishing.  The traditional forest diet, however, can be disrupted by contact with European ideas and values. For example, in the Eastern Sepik, villagers have stopped using the nutritionally rich wing bean as their staple food, so that children are now seen with swollen bellies indicating malnourishment. On the other hand, Western-style fast food is also becoming more available, so that in some rural centres obesity is growing a problem.