Astrazeneca Stock – With their AstraZeneca supplies nearing expiration, PNG comes up with creative ways to vaccinate people
A bright yellow bus rolls down a dusty road in Pari Village in Port Moresby. About 6,000 people live here, many in traditional houses perched on stilts over the water.
It is Papua New Guinea’s first mobile vaccination unit.
The bus is certainly makes a statement and it’s one local leader Dadi Toka Jnr wants his people to hear: COVID-19 vaccinations have arrived.
“We need to get creative,” Mr Toka said.
“[The bus] allows us to take the vaccine to the community. It also gives the opportunity for everyone in the village to come out and see what’s going on, see how easy it is, and that it’s not as scary as the social media that’s been going around.”
PNG has seen a slow initial uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly among health workers and front liners in Port Moresby, who were given first priority.
Authorities have put that largely down to the impact of misinformation and social media.
PNG needs to increase the uptake of vaccines. The 130,000 vials of AstraZeneca the country received under the COVAX program, which makes up the bulk of its doses, will expire next month.
“The expiry date is a concern,” the country’s COVID-19 Incident Manager Dr Daoni Esorom said.
“But our major concern at the moment is just to vaccinate more people.”
Pari is one of nine villages in Port Moresby where the city’s traditional landowners, the Motu and Koitabu people, live. Only four of the villages have health clinics.
The bus has brought all the supplies needed for injections and has been fitted out inside to have an emergency treatment bed in case of any rare reactions to the vaccine.
Among the first to be vaccinated is Boad Natera. She said she would not have got the jab if the bus had not come to her village.
“I was wishing for them to come here and I’ll get it, not outside,” she said.
Nurse Susan Nalu believes delivering the vaccines within the village will build confidence.
“We will be more exposed to the people and people will be more easily getting information from us,” she said.
Local mother Koino Govea has been watching the vaccinations from a small market stall and said she hasn’t decided to get the jab just yet.
“I’ll wait and see those ones who are vaccinated and later I’ll make my decision,” she said.
“It’s good to bring the vaccinations into the village, because some of us, we can’t afford to go into [the city] to get the medicine.”
Mr Toka said regardless of the vaccine expiry date, it was important to be able to offer the service to the people.
“If you put the due date of the vaccine to the side, it’s still important to get the right message across, that’s critical,” he said.
“If our people are not well versed in the benefits of this vaccination then we’re going to have a lot of problems.”
The country’s national rollout has only been in full swing for around two weeks, and the World Health Organisation’s country manager Anna Maalsen said she is confident the doses will all be used before the expiry date.
“This is a really great example of a community-led initiative, and we encourage all around the country to think innovatively about how we can bring not just vaccination services, but other primary care services to the community,” she said.
Vaccine influencers deployed online
PNG, which has a population of nine million, has so far vaccinated 30,400 people.
The country has to overcome not only hesitancy and misinformation about the vaccine, but also significant logistical issues.
Cold storage across the country has been upgraded and vaccines are being helicoptered into some remote locations.
It took almost two months to use up Australia’s initial donation of 8,400 vaccines, and an additional donation of 10,000 are now being administered.
New Zealand has announced it will donate 140,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to PNG next month, which will be used for second doses. Further deliveries from COVAX and Australia are expected in coming months to continue the rollout.
The Australian Government has called on a footy legend to help sell the vaccination message in PNG, releasing a social media video of Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Seselja and Rugby League legend Mal Meninga promoting the COVID-19 vaccine.
PNG is also promoting what it calls “vaccine champions” through social media, including the Catholic Cardinal Sir John Ribat.
More people are now eligible to get the jab, including older residents, those with co-morbidities and workers from sectors that weren’t initially classified as frontline, including the media.
However, in the capital Port Moresby, many people who aren’t technically eligible have also been able to get the vaccine by going to a centre and asking for it.
With more people now eligible and doses now being dispensed across the country, Ms Maalsen said momentum was building.
“We’re starting to see a lot more people coming forward, wanting to have the vaccine,” she said.
PNG’s Pandemic Controller David Manning said a focus remains on encouraging more health workers, who were given first priority, to get vaccinated.
“The healthcare workers are central to our national pandemic response and must be protected,” he said.
As the surge eases, fear remain of another
While it’s difficult to track exactly what is happening with COVID-19 in PNG because of low testing rates and data collection issue the surge the country saw in February, March and April appears to have finally eased.
But case numbers are still rising and there is widespread community transmission.
In addition to stretching PNG’s very limited health resources, the surge earlier this year also drove up demand for medical air evacuations.
The CEO of PNG company Tropicair, Craig Chapple, said there was a threefold increase in requests during the spike.
“We did get a large surge at one stage … and could be doing two or three a day,” he said.
The company has been conducting both local and international airlifts, with several Australians flown back home for treatment.
Domestic medevacs involve collecting people from rural locations and smaller towns to bring them to Port Moresby for treatment.
“They usually get referred because the provincial hospitals don’t have the capacity for more high dependency or intensive care of COVID-19 patients,” said Dr Arabella Koliwan, who works with St John Ambulance and goes along on the flights to monitor the patients.
But the work of medical evacuators, health workers and vaccinators may not be over anytime soon.
Authorities say modelling suggests the country could experience another big wave in July, August and September.