In January 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic reached the shores of Kiribati for the first time. Building on existing relationships with the Kiribati Ministry of Health and Medical Services, the PEARL study was well positioned to contribute to the COVID-19 response.
Our very own PEARL study medical lead, Dr Jeremy Hill, worked alongside counterparts from the Kiribati MHMS in the COVID Emergency Operations Centre for the duration of the first wave of COVID-19. In this role, he worked across the health system to provide public health and epidemiology technical advice, training, data analysis and coordination. This was made possible with funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Centre for Health Security.
"It was humbling to witness the resilience of the people of Kiribati in the face of this new challenge"
The PEARL study also contributed to diagnostic capacity. Our tuberculosis (TB) screening intervention includes a chest X-ray using an ultraportable X-ray system and a sputum test using the Cepheid GeneXpert platform. Both of these platforms can be used for COVID diagnosis and management and were made available to the MHMS to support the COVID response - an example of how these technologies can be used in multiple disease areas.
"There was a lot of uncertainty about how COVID-19 would affect the population here in Tarawa, especially with no previous exposure to the virus," said Dr Hill, speaking from Tungaru Central Hospital. "It was a privilege to work shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues in the MHMS, and teams from development partners. We sought to understand how fast COVID-19 was spreading, quickly provide access to testing and treatments, and support community members and healthcare workers to respond together. It was humbling to witness the resilience of the people of Kiribati in the face of this new challenge, which will stick with me as we make up lost ground in responding to older challenges like tuberculosis and leprosy."
With the worst of the outbreak now past in South Tarawa, Dr Hill and key staff in the National TB and Leprosy Programmes are turning their sights towards the launch of the PEARL study. The PEARL study protocol has recently been published which outlines the PEARL strategy and highlights the cooperation between MHMS and the PEARL researchers from the University of Sydney.
The PEARL study team looks forward to working together towards an end to the TB pandemic in Kiribati in the months and years to come, and will build on the new collaborations and recent experiences formed during the initial COVID-19 response.