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Dr David O’Brien (Senior Lecturer)
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University of Melbourne architecture students have designed and built a neonatal centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that addresses the importance of sanitation in reducing mortality rates. 

The $60,000 initiative, jointly funded by the Australian High Commission Papua New Guinea’s Direct Aid Program and the University of Melbourne’s Bower Studio project, was carried out with consideration for the unique challenges faced by the remote Suanum community on the northern coastline of PNG. This includes clean running water, a sanitary neonatal centre that sleeps up to four women, and an innovative composting toilet system.

The project team, led by Dr David O’Brien from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, collaborated with the community to design and build sanitary facilities that are vital for improving health outcomes.

“This was a unique opportunity for the Master of Architecture students to enhance their design and consultation skills. The Suanum community of almost 100 people has no health facilities available to them within a three-hour radius.

“Like all coastal communities, Suanum is also at risk from rising sea levels. The traditional pit toilets flood during high tides, spreading human waste throughout the community,” Dr O’Brien said.

In Papua New Guinea prenatal complications are the leading form of death. Less than half of women give birth at a health facility or hospital, leading to one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, where prenatal complications are responsible for one out of every ten deaths. Infant mortality rates are more than ten times higher than Australia, with 47 infant deaths per 1000 live births in PNG, compared to three infant deaths per 1000 live births in Australia.

Safe and clean facilities reduce the physical and mental risks for the mother and child in the first month after birth. The facilities we have designed will improve health outcomes, while also respecting the community’s strong cultural traditions,” Dr O’Brien said.

Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, Ms Deborah Stokes, congratulated the architecture students on the success of the project.

Ms Stokes said facilities for skilled supervised births such as the Suanum neonatal centre are vital in saving the lives of mothers and their children during childbirth. The project supported Australia’s broader commitment to providing increased midwifery education and facilities in PNG.

Since 2008, the Bower Studio has brought together University architecture students and researchers to work with Indigenous groups in remote locations in Australia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea. The project teams have helped to design and build facilities that improve the community environments, including sanitary facilities, houses, computer labs and early childhood learning centres.

You can see an example of previous Bower Studio work below: