Papua New Guinea health services are battling the delta outbreak

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COVID-19 cases are increasing across Papua New Guinea, with all major hospitals struggling to cope with the spread of the Delta variant across the country.

This has brought a renewed focus on increasing the country’s vaccination rate, which is the lowest in the Western Pacific region.

“At the moment we can hardly cope with the existing load. There are overvoltages in all major centers, ”said Dr. Gary Nou, Head of the Emergency Team at the National Control Center for COVID-19.

Local health workers are exhausted and many have become infected. In some overcrowded hospitals, patients have been forced to lie on the floor and vital supplies are running low.

“There are patients everywhere. The situation is dire,” Dr. Nou called.

PNG struggled to enforce measures such as wearing masks and barriers, which led to many joining the response, saying the country needs to “vaccinate” its way out of the pandemic.

The recent surge in cases has increased demand for the vaccine, but there is still a long way to go.

Less than 2 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated.

“Our own worst enemy”

People stand in front of a triage tent outside Port Moresby General Hospital to be tested before visiting the hospital.(Facebook: Port Moresby General Hospital)

After apparently escaping the worst of the pandemic, cases in PNG rose in March and April of this year. After this increase, the numbers fell again.

Poor test rates and data collection, especially in remote areas, mean the full extent of the virus spread in PNG will never be known, but cases have no longer been inundated hospitals.

Health officials continued to warn of a further increase.

Even so, it has set complacency. And the delta variant snuck across the border from Indonesia.

“It’s very worrying, we’ve had a lot of deaths. It’s something we thought would never happen in our country,” said Health Minister Jelta Wong.

“We were our own worst enemy, we got complacent, we started listening to the people on Facebook.”

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Several regions of PNG are now struggling with rising cases, with emergency oxygen supplies flown to Goroka repeatedly over the past month and General Port Moresby warning it was reaching a “crisis point” and services “wavering from collapse.”

This recent surge is the worst the country has ever seen.

Officially, the country has recorded just over 27,000 cases and 335 deaths. But that’s probably a huge underestimate due to poor testing.

Last week the General of Port Moresby had more than 100 people dead on arrival the hospital. She is planning a mass burial this week to make room in the morgue.

While some affected regions have put in place local bans, Port Moresby Governor said these are too difficult to enforce and authorities would instead focus on increasing vaccinations.

PNG has fully vaccinated 147,800 people to date, while 223,200 have received a dose. For a country with an estimated population of 9 million people, that equates to a full vaccination of 1.6 percent.

Vaccinations are currently only available to people over the age of 18, so the number of people eligible for vaccination is around 4.6 million, meaning 3 percent of those who have access are fully vaccinated .

Port Moresby has the highest vaccination rate with around 60,000 fully vaccinated people.

More vaccines are being absorbed into the community

A woman with a face mask holds up a certificate.
Nellie Sere was grateful that she could get vaccinated in her village instead of having to go to the next town.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Nellie Sere was among the first people in Gaire village to line up when vaccinations first appeared in the village this month.

“It was brought to our front door. It was a chance for us to use it,” she said.

Gaire is about an hour’s drive from Port Moresby, but getting the vaccinations into the village made all the difference for the 150 people who got the vaccination on the first day.

“It’s very difficult for some of us to go into town because of that [bus] Fare so some of us can’t afford it, “said Ms Sere.

As in many places in PNG, Gaire does not have permanent health workers and its aid station does not have a refrigerator, so it was the only way to bring the vaccines with you for a day at Eskies.

Given the recent surge, the province’s central health authority, which includes Gaire, is now bringing vaccines to the villages.

A man in sunglasses has a surgical mask pulled under his chin.
Dr. James Amini says that with only two doctors and no major hospital, the province cannot respond to a major outbreak(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

“When [the pandemic] At first we thought Papuan New Guineans were immune to most simple flu-like illnesses and we could withstand them, “said CEO Dr. James Amini.

“Unfortunately, this variant is different, passes over much easier and is a bit more fatal, hence the urgency. I suppose our problem is that we didn’t spot the problem quickly and try to address it sooner. “

There was a national push to improve access to vaccines and strengthen mobile teams.

Prime Minister James Marape has defended the rollout, denying that the slow rollout was a government failure. He blames a lack of coordination between the provincial health authorities, the Ministry of Health and the national COVID control center.

“Vaccines are available across the country,” he said.

“I think vaccines have been introduced, but people’s response to vaccination has been slow to come as I believe our people are not forced to do things against their will.”

A new task force for vaccines has been introduced and the focus is now on adapting the rollouts to individual areas.

“We don’t believe the disease is real”

People stand under trees in front of a table.
People are queuing to get vaccinated at Waromo Village in West Sepik.(Facebook: National Ministry of Health of Papua New Guinea)

PNG has faced high rates of hesitation and fear since the first vaccines arrived in March.

Accused of widespread conspiracy theories and misinformation shared online; its spread was facilitated by a distrust of governments and authorities. In some communities, health workers offering the vaccine have been threatened or attacked.

In April, Facebook announced it was launching an education campaign in PNG, but it does not appear to have spread widely. The ABC asked how many users it was rolled out to and is waiting for the answer.

In the largely Christian country, the religion was also invoked by some to discourage vaccinations, claiming it was a sign of the devil or that people should trust God to save them. The PNG Church Council has just launched a campaign using its support for the vaccine and encouraging people to get the vaccine.

Amid calls for more education and awareness about vaccines, there are still some in the community who doubt the presence of COVID-19 in PNG.

In Gerehu, a suburb of Port Moresby, a group of residents gathers around a buai table – a small shop that sells a nut that is popularly chewed in PNG.

“We don’t believe it, we don’t believe the disease is real,” said one woman.

“We’re not thinking of getting [the vaccine]. “

In a country with so many health problems and endemic diseases, suspicion arises when the world reacts so quickly to a new disease.

“We know malaria, typhoid and TB, we are treated for it and we are worried. We do not know the other disease, including COVID,” said another woman.

In PNG, people are so used to an overburdened and underfunded healthcare system that the news of full morgues and crumbling services wasn’t enough to convince some.

“Although the government says wash hands and keep social distance, we haven’t seen anyone die of COVID-19, nobody died in the market,” said one man.

“The government is funding billions and billions for COVID, but not for other diseases.”

Fatalism also reigns among many politicians in the country, who are instead focusing on the upcoming 2022 elections. Many MPs have not yet been vaccinated.

International aid

PNG currently has AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Sinopharm vaccines. International donors, including Australia, have promised to provide as many vaccines as needed, but they are being dripped into the country to avoid wastage.

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Almost 12,000 cans of the donated AstraZeneca had to be destroyed after expiration and another 30,000 were sent to Vietnam to ensure they were used on time.

Johnson & Johnson’s newly acquired vaccine has proven popular and, as it only requires one dose, is considered the most convenient option for the country. Health officials hope the popularity will continue as the 300,000 doses donated so far expire in December.

With hospitals struggling to respond to the current surge, a medical team of 10 has arrived from the UK. Australia also has a small emergency team on site to assess the situation with the likelihood of further help being sent.

Australia has already allocated $ 340 million to PNG’s coronavirus response.

“We take our responsibility to PNG as a neighbor and friend very seriously, be it in the form of cash, vaccines or specialist support, all of these things are on the table,” said Australian Pacific Minister Zed Seselja.

Fourteen members of the Australian Defense Forces were due to fly in this week to assist the PNG Defense Forces in their role in responding to the surge, including providing vaccinations.


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