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20 May 2023

Jeanne Rini Poespoprodjo Strives to Eradicate Malaria in Papua Through Evidence-Based Strategy

The 2023 Promoting Women's Empowerment and Social Inclusion Awardee. Rini earned her PhD from Charles Darwin University’s Menzies School of Health Research in 2011, on the Australia Leadership Award scholarship.

Fighting against malaria in remote Papua province has taught Dr Jeanne Rini Poespoprodjo that the availability of medicines alone is not enough to address public health challenges. In addition to accessing treatment, people need evidence-based responses to their specific needs.

Rini, as the paediatrician is affectionately called, has dedicated her medical career to finding ways to improve community health in areas where malaria is endemic by providing evidence-based strategies to inform policymakers.

According to Indonesian Health Ministry data, the Annual Parasite Incidence (API) – the number of confirmed malaria cases during one year – in Papua was 80.05 per 1,000 persons in 2021, significantly higher than the national API of 1.12.

Malaria Prevention for Pregnant Mothers and Children

Since she started her malaria research in 2003, Rini has concentrated on preventing the disease in expectant mothers and children because of the toll the disease takes on these groups.

“Pregnant mothers with malaria have twice the risk of anaemia and delivering a baby with low birth weight as those who are not infected,” explained Rini, who graduated with a Master of Science from the Institute of Child Health at the University College in London, England, in 2006.

In 2015, Rini and her fellow researchers tested three malaria prevention strategies on pregnant women. “Of the three interventions, the most effective intervention was providing intermittent anti-malarial medication to prevent malaria from infecting pregnant mothers, and it has been implemented in Mimika Regency,” she said.

In recent years, her research has focused on preventing malaria relapses in people with Plasmodium vivax (P.vivax). This is harder to cure than other types of malaria because of the parasite’s ability to remain dormant in a patient's liver and can initiate infections without mosquito bites.

To kill the parasite, P.vivax patients must take an extra drug – called ‘the brown pill’ (primaquine) – for 14 days on top of the main three-day therapy regimen.

“The challenge is to raise awareness of the importance of fully completing the duration of treatment to end the cycle of infection,” said Rini, who is also a researcher at the Papua Community Health and Development Foundation (Yayasan Pengembangan Kesehatan dan Masyarakat Papua, or YPKMP).

Rini and her colleagues are currently working to halve the ‘brown pill’ treatment period to help patients complete their full course. She added that the shorter drug regimen is expected to be implemented as a pilot strategy by the Mimika Regency administration in July or August this year.

Another program to raise awareness about the importance of malaria treatment is the establishment of ‘Malaria Corners’ (‘Pojok Malaria’) at community health centres in Mimika Regency. The Malaria Corners, which have been operating since 2019, provide comprehensive information about the disease from health officials.

Support from the Australian Government

Rini says that the Australian Government has played a vital role in her medical research.

Rini began collaborating on malaria research with Charles Darwin University’s Menzies School of Health Research before completing her PhD at the same institution under the Australian Leadership Award scholarship in 2011. Her relationship with the Menzies School continues today.

Collaboration with the Menzies School of Health Research has allowed the Papua Community Health and Development Foundation, which Rini and her fellow researchers founded, to expand its network with other research institutions, such as the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK.  

“We have the (malaria) cases, and they need the knowledge on the disease. So, we learn from each other. The foundation and Charles Darwin (University) also often apply for funding together. All in all, we have a solid network that opens up many opportunities,” said Rini.

The Australian Government has also recognised Rini’s vital work in malaria research. In 2008, Rini received the Allison Sudradjat Prize in support of emerging leaders in Indonesia. In 2016, she received an award for her humanitarian work from the Australia-Indonesia Association.

This year, Rini has been named the 2023 Promoting Women’s Empowerment and Social Inclusion Award winner.

“I am honoured because Australia Awards recognises our effort, although we have been doing it for a long time. Because of the ongoing support, I don’t feel like I work alone. It motivates me even more,” she said.

Commitment to malaria eradication

Rini began her medical career in 1991 as a general practitioner in a rural community health centre in Merauke, Papua, after graduating from Padjadjaran University the previous year. She quipped that she didn’t choose to work in Indonesia’s easternmost region because of a “noble vision”.

“I was a city girl looking for an adventure to help me find my life's purpose,” said Rini, who obtained her paediatric speciality degree at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta in 1999.

It was an eye-opening experience that convinced her to work and live in Papua.

"In a remote area with few doctors, I can save lives simply by being there and bringing them the medicines. It’s my reward, making me very happy," she said.

Rini is committed to continuing her research to find ways of reducing malaria cases in Papua and advising local policymakers to adopt the research findings in their health programs.

“The Papuans are my inspiration,” Rini said. “I want to ensure that I contribute to efforts to improve people’s health amid the limitations. My life has found its purpose.”

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