PNG Covid-19 vaccination programme complicated by frontliner hesitancy

2:35 pm on 26 March 2021

Sceptical health frontliners in Papua New Guinea are seeking answers about Covid-19 vaccines before they consent to the jab.

The country's total number of confirmed cases has more than tripled in the past fortnight to almost 5000, while the death toll climbed to 40, although the outbreak which is likely to be far worse than the official figures say because testing has been very limited.

Hanuabada, Port Moresby.

Hanuabada, Port Moresby. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The surge in cases of the virus in PNG adds a sense of urgency to the country's vaccination programme which the government said should begin by Monday.

Health workers were to be prioritised for the first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines, 8000 of which were sent by Australia to PNG this week.

But hesitancy is significant among health workers, many of whom are infected, increasing pressure to a health system under massive strain due to Covid.

A nurse in Port Moresby, going by the name of Alexandra, said she and her colleagues were asked yesterday as frontliners whether they would like to get vaccinated.

"From the response, I would say about 96 percent didn't give their consent to have the vaccine as yet, until and unless the side effects of the vaccine are being outlined well, because those are the things that we do not know that we have not really been made aware of."

Alexandra said that from reading online, she had seen that numerous European countries suspended their rollout of AstraZeneca due to concerns about links to blood clots.

However, the European Medicines Agency subsequently reported that the vaccine was not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots for people who received the AstraZeneca vaccination. The rollout has resumed in most European countries.

Doses of AstraZeneca-developed Covid-19 vaccines sent by Australia to Papua New Guinea.

Doses of AstraZeneca-developed Covid-19 vaccines sent by Australia to Papua New Guinea. Photo: Australian High Commission in PNG

The nurse said health workers had numerous questions about the vaccine, especially since a former senior doctor in PNG began questioning the efficacy of the vaccine on social media.

With health workers and other professionals seen as conduits for important information in their village communities, the hesitancy casts a shadow over the PNG vaccination programme's prospects.

"In Papua New Guinea, the persons that have information are called intellects. Once you talk with your tribesmen, your people back at the village, they'll believe everything and anything from you, that what we are saying is true because we are educated."

The nurse said health workers were putting their questions to PNG's Department of Health and the World Health Organisation, which she hoped would allay her concerns.

She said that if questions about vaccination persisted, people in her village would not get immunised, particularly as there were already misconceptions and misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines.

The nurse's comments came the same day that PNG's Opposition leader Belden Namah alleged the government was exposing citizens to potential serious harm by offering them up as laboratory rats for further testing of the vaccine.

But authorities in the United Kingdom already found that the AstraZeneca vaccine significantly reduced severe Covid-19 in older adults.

While the vaccine was not compulsory, the Prime Minister James Marape urged PNG health workers to take up the opportunity to receive it, saying the side-effects were typically minor, and assuring that he would take the vaccine before them to show it is safe.

His comments were backed up by several local MPs who contracted the virus in recent months and were encouraging the public to take the risk of Covid-19 seriously.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape gives a Covid-19 update for media, 23 March 2021

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape gives a Covid-19 update for media, 23 March 2021 Photo: PNG PM Media

The National Pandemic Response Controller, David Manning, told health workers it was in the nation's interests for them to get vaccinated.

"If it does come to a critical point where health workers opt not to take the vaccination, there are considerable risks not only to themselves, but to the rest of the country's population.

"Essentially what that means is that we won't have a health service to look after us."