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IMR was originally called the Institute of Human Biology, and for its first two years, it was based in Madang while suitable premises were sought in Goroka. The inaugural director, New Zealander Professor Richard Hornabrook (1968-77), was actively engaged in coordinating collaborative research on a wide range of diseases in PNG, including kuru, Pigbel, cretinism and an epidemic of syphilis in the Highlands. There was a great deal of scientific activity and a constant flow of visiting scientists, research workers and students. A research base was established on Karkar Island. By 1975, the institute’s name was changed and it became the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research.

When Dr Michael Alpers (1977-00) took the reins, the Institute had about 10 staff, five Papua New Guineans and five expatriates. By the end of his term in 2000, there were five expatriate staff and around 250 Papua New Guineans. Dr Alpers set the standard for the modern Institute, ensuring that there was “no research without service; no service without research.” Research programs continued to look at disease problems of the greatest importance to Papua New Guineans, such as pneumonia, malaria, enteric diseases, filariasis and malnutrition. A branch was established in Yagaum for malaria research and pneumonia research was undertaken in the Asaro Valley and in Tari. Later, major programs were established in women’s health and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. New branches were created in Maprik and Wewak, Port Moresby and Lae. IMR studied kuru, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, rural water supplies and even drafted PNG’s anti-smoking legislation. Our kuru research has continued for more than 50 years and has contributed to two Nobel prizes.

Professor John Reeder (2000-06) joined IMR during tight economic times that meant the Institute was struggling financially and seeking new sources of funding. While this was underway, a five year strategic plan was developed as part of the wider 2001-10 National Health Plan. Recognising the importance of IMR’s work, the PNG Government and AusAID stepped in to provide support. Among other assistance, at Goroka, AusAID funded a new library and lecture theatre. Through closer union with the University of Papua New Guinea, IMR developed training opportunities for scores of the brightest and best PNG graduates. Meanwhile, groundbreaking work in areas such as filariasis and malaria continued.

Professor Peter Siba (2006 onwards) has provided a steady hand to the IMR team. A long-term researcher and virologist with IMR, Professor Siba is the first Papua New Guinean to head the Institute. Under his leadership, IMR continues its research into malaria, including mapping the Highlands for Government malaria control units and conducting drug studies in Maprik and Madang. IMR also supports a vector biology/entomology section, bringing an ecological disease perspective to malaria control. Filariasis, respiratory disease, sexual health and infectious diseases such as typhoid and meningitis are important components of our work. The disease surveillance program has maintained its role in keeping PNG polio free, and viral diseases such as dengue, measles, influenza, rotavirus and Japanese encephalitis.

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For more details about our current work, see the Research section on this website.


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Samson Akunaii
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