PNG epidemic underlines need for vaccine equity: WHO

11:18 pm on 16 April 2021

The World Health Organisation's director-general says Papua New Guinea's struggle with Covid-19 underlines the need for vaccine equity.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus today told a briefing focused on Papua New Guinea and the western Pacific region about the WHO's concern of the potential for a much larger epidemic in PNG.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus giving a briefing on the Covid-19 outbreak, 2 March

Photo: AFP

Globally cases and deaths were "continuing to increase at worrying rates", he said.

"The number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months. This is approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic."

Countries which had been experiencing steep increases in infections in the past few months included PNG, Tedros noted.

PNG pandemic response authorities today reported 155 new confirmed covid-19 cases in the last 24-hour period, increasing the total number of cases to 9,343. The number of deaths related to the virus is 82.

"There is large-scale community transmission in the capital, Port Moresby, and the Western Province," Tedros said.

"All twenty-two provinces have now reported cases. Although in the last two weeks we have seen some decline."

PNG's vaccine rollout began slowly three weeks ago, with a first batch of 8,000 AstraZeneca doses sent from Australia.

This week, 132,000 AstraZeneca vaccines from India, sent through the COVAX facility arrived in PNG.

Addressing the briefing, PNG's Health Minister, Jelta Wong said about 1,600 people including essential workers had already been vaccinated in Port Moresby.

Tedros said the WHO was continuing to work closely with PNG's Department of Health and partners to provide technical advice and support, and to boost local health response capacity.

"This includes an emphasis on expanding testing," he said.

"Papua New Guinea is a perfect example of why vaccine equity is so important.

"It has held Covid-19 at bay for so long, but with rising infections, understandable fatigue with social restrictions in the population, and a fragile health system, it's vital that it receives more vaccines as soon as possible."

Boroko, Port Moresby.

Boroko, Port Moresby. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Wong said 588,000 AstraZeneca doses were to arrive via COVAX by June. Health and essential workers would be prioritised.

The minister acknowledged big challenges facing the rollout in PNG's population of over eight million.

"Our biggest challenge is seemingly the late acceptance of the 'new normal' and a disbelief in the disease itself," he said.

The director-general said WHO experts had been deployed to support PNG's government with case management, epidemiology, infection prevention and control, laboratory services and information management.

Tedros said emergency medical teams from Australia, Germany and the US have also arrived to support PNG's response, with others expected in the coming weeks.

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