Papua New Guinea

PNG still gripped by anti-vax sentiment

Health experts are warning people in Papua New Guinea to remain vigilant against the Covid-19 onset of the Omicron strain arriving on the country’s shores.

But recent government remarks have done little to instil confidence in protecting Papua New Guineans should Omicron prove to be more transferrable.

Dr Stefanie Vaccher, an Australian epidemiologist who is working in PNG with the Kokopo-based Burnet Institute, says the variant has 32 mutations on a genetic level. Delta had just nine mutations.

“When people hear <4% of PNG has been vaccinated against #COVID19 I’m so often asked, ‘Why can’t we just send more vaccines?!” she first tweeted.

The vaccine advocate said it was not so easy amid a “climate of suspicion and distrust” where conspiracy theories are spreading by word-of-mouth, which increases at “immense speed” through social media on the popular WhatsApp.

Dr Vaccher said a need for public health interventions require meeting people in their community and working with varied levels of understanding and acceptance, while also educating in the country’s 850 languages.

New research from the World Bank, whose mission is to end extreme poverty while promoting shared prosperity, found around one in five people in PNG surveyed were planning to be vaccinated, but had concerns about the side effects and a lack of trust in the vaccines.

omicron vaccination png
Health authorities travelled to Gaire Village, about an hour’s drive from Port Moresby, to administer a vaccine. Picture: Papua New Guinea National Department of Health

“[Omicron] is a reminder to us all that vaccine inequity and our failure to end infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis, are the same side of the coin – a devaluation of human life in poor countries,” Dr Vaccher tweeted in response.

She also wrote from experience that inadequate community awareness has led to widespread vaccine hesitancy that is spurred on by confusion about who can be vaccinated, where, and with what vaccine.

Healthcare workers were also not immune, according to Dr Vaccher, after being “physically attacked” for promoting vaccinations while unvaccinated workers discourage others from being jabbed.

PNG deputy controller of the national pandemic response, Dr Esorom Daoni, said key information of the transmissibility, infectivity, severity of infections, its ability to re-infect people and its outcomes on fully vaccinated people remain unknown.

“We have more questions yet to be answered on the effectiveness of current tests, therapeutics and also on vaccines on this new variant,” he said on the PNG Covid-19 website.

Dr Daoni is assured that the national control centre team is working with its partners to ensure borders of the country are being monitored and appropriate quarantine and isolation measures will be in place.

“We must be prepared and not panic,” he said.

“We have to be concerned but not to overreact and do what is right to keep the variant out and, if it does enter the country, we have to do the right things to mitigate its impact.

“We will be guided by the risk assessments, and the science and public health facts and evidence to guide us on how to act swiftly and appropriately.”

Prime minister James Marape’s has also come under fire for his recent comments in parliament that it was “not mandatory” for the people of Papua New Guinea to be vaccinated, with claims that this downplays the seriousness of the new Covid strain.

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Omicron has an unusually large number of mutations, and a significant number affect the largest of the four major structural proteins found in the deadly virus.

Mr Marape, who has promoted vaccinations despite widespread rumours that he holds anti-vax sentiments, said in response to a petition that calls for a no mandatory vaccination order and to dismiss its pandemic act, that the “no jab, no job” policy of the private sector was not one of his government.

“I want to make it clear again that vaccination is not mandatory in our country,” he said.

“How many times will we stand here and repeat that vaccination is not mandatory?

“We have not made vaccination mandatory since Day 1 (last year).

“I want to tell everyone in the country: do not listen to misinformation that vaccination is mandatory, in as far as government policy is concerned.

“We respect our people’s right to freedom of choice, especially when it comes to sensitive matters like this.”

PNG had no intentions to follow the actions of other Melanesian communities, where vaccination was mandatory in Fiji and opened its borders after more than 80 per cent of the people were double dosed.

“We have not made vaccination mandatory, but we have made vaccination available to whoever wants to receive it,” Mr Marape said.

“That policy still stands, so what some people are saying that vaccination is mandatory is not true.”

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