Jane McCormick travelled to Papua New Guinea with actress Keeley Hawes and Unicef to see how its partnership with the Commonwealth Games is helping disadvantaged children
As we arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, I knew I was in for an adventure. Like nothing I’d ever seen before, perhaps a bit like a camping trip, but a bit more extreme than my overnights in the past back in Scotland.
I knew a bit about Unicef and its vaccination work across the world but I hadn’t ever thought before how they actually get the life-saving vaccines to the children, especially those in Inika village. The village was three hours by road and then six hours by boat from the airport where Keeley and I had just landed and we were quickly trying to adjust to the 35 degree heat and humidity.
Unicef has developed and perfected what’s called the cold chain. This is a hugely complex transport operation to make sure the vaccines that protect children against a range of killer diseases are kept between two and eight degrees celsius from the moment they leave the laboratory to the time they’re administered in some of the most inhospitable places on earth.
Our mission was to help a local health team deliver the vaccines up the wildly meandering Kubuna river to Inika village in the foothills of the Papua New Guinean highlands. It’s hard to describe the remoteness that Keeley and I felt as we slowly made our way up the river on a small boat helmed by one of the village chiefs. It was like floating through an endless botanic garden, pristine untouched wilderness – but hell, the sun was hot!
Coming round the corner to the village was amazing. The welcome we got was the best of my life. I’ve never had people jumping up and down cheering to greet me before. I had a real lump in my throat, which might have been the journey, but more likely it was knowing how excited the children and their parents were to get the vaccinations – and knowing I was playing my own small part in helping to save lives.
I had a real lump in my throat knowing how excited the children and their parents were to get the vaccinations – and knowing I was playing my own small part in helping to save lives
Once we’d unloaded the cold boxes we made our way into a small clearing at the heart of the sprawling riverside community. Although the setting was extraordinary, I was struck by watching the children play, throwing a ball around just like back home. I sometimes play this game with my son Archie, where you hold your hand out and he’ll hit it, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Some of the children found it just as much fun. They’re all the same, they’re lovely!
Early the next day, after a restless night outdoors protected by our mosquito nets, we gathered back in the clearing to see the children lining up for their vaccinations. It’s was tough seeing them excitedly lining up and then crying their eyes out as they were given their lifesaving jags.
I was struck how on top of things the mums and dads were. They were very forceful about the fact they had to get their vaccines done. Then again I suppose that’s understandable when it’s eight hours walk to the nearest health centre – a distance that makes any illness here potentially life threatening.
Once we’d watched the skilled health team for a little longer we headed back to the boats ready for the long journey home. As we made our way downstream I had mixed emotions. For the children there, growing up in a place so untouched by modern life must be wonderfu. But at the same time, it's hard to imagine what it’s like for their parents, knowing that a sudden illness is often life threatening.
Since having Archie, I’ve been much more aware that children should all have the same rights, and this trip has made me so much more determined to carry on helping children. Archie is so lucky – we all are to have been born in the UK. We don’t have anything like the challenges facing the children in Papua New Guinea and so many other places across the Commonwealth.
Although it’ll be great to get back to my swimming, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as worthwhile as this. What an amazing experience, I’m in complete awe of the people who do this work all the time.
Despite being diagnosed with heart problems and epilepsy Jane McCormick is one of Scotland’s leading open water swimmers and has developed an open water programme for children to help them tackle their fear of water and stay safe. Her and Keeley’s story will be told, along with that of another five Flying Scots and their high profile travelling companions, during a unique fundraising moment for Unicef at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Glasgow on the evening of 23 July.