Experts have warned that the next variant of Covid-19 to hit the world could be on the doorstep due to the incredibly low vaccination rates in Australia Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbor and is just 4 km from Australian territory on the Torres Strait. At various times in the pandemic, there were fears that travelers from PNG could bring the virus to Australia.
“I’m concerned that PNG will be the next place a new variant shows up,” said Adrian Prouse, director of international humanitarian programs at the Australian Red Cross.
“In PNG less than 5% [of the adult population is vaccinated], in Indonesia, just under a third. Two countries on our doorstep with significant vaccine delivery challenges. “
Stefanie Vaccher, Burnet Institute epidemiologist who has been based in PNG since last year, shared this concern.
“In populations with low immunization coverage, there are more opportunities for the virus to spread and mutate. In PNG, where less than 4% of the population is vaccinated, there are many opportunities for the virus to mutate and spread. “
Vaccher said the Australian government and people should be concerned about the spread of Covid-19 in PNG, not just because of the importance it could mean to Australia.
“I think it shouldn’t matter which country a variant shows up in for the world to take care of it. Countries have a responsibility to think globally, and the pandemic has shown how connected we are … It’s not just important because it poses a potential risk to their populations who may lose hard-fought terrain or who have struggled through lockdowns. These are people who suffer in every country and their life is just as important as any other. “
Papua New Guinea is grappling with a devastating Covid-19 outbreak throughout 2021.
The official death toll from the virus is 573 with around 35,000 cases, but the true extent of the outbreak is difficult to determine due to the low testing rates and stigma surrounding the disease. According to reports, people are asking doctors not to list Covid-19 as the cause of death on their loved ones’ death certificates.
Vaccher said a study conducted in PNG around March 2021 – before the big wave of the virus – that showed that 24% of health care workers at Port Moresby General Hospital already had antibodies to Covid-19 points to this how widespread and undetected the transmission of Covid was.
Covid has also paralyzed Papua New Guinea’s already strained and inadequately equipped health system.
“Right now, PNG is struggling with a surge in Delta,” said Prouse. “When you superimpose a surge in Delta with a really fragile health system, high disease rates, poor access to sanitation and safe water, you see an increase in hospital stays and deaths.
“We have seen the major hospitals in PNG reduce their medical services. What is worrying about this is that, from a much longer term perspective, we are seeing an increase in problems related to malaria, TB, other diseases, maternal and infant poor health. “
“Another devastating fact is that maternal mortality has doubled in the last year,” said Vaccher. “Covid would play a part in this – Covid affects pregnant women. But it is also because hospitals have closed, doctors and nurses are unable to work with Covid, people are too afraid to come to the hospital for appointments.
Prouse said the supply of vaccines to PNG had been adequate and he commended the Australian government for “doing a really good job delivering vaccines to our Pacific neighbors,” but the problems in PNG were, ” Bringing Weapons to Vaccines, ”with issues surrounding cold storage, health news, and especially reluctance to use vaccines.
Both experts said Australia’s news on AstraZeneca earlier this year didn’t help people in PNG have confidence in the vaccine’s safety. The Australian government donated tens of thousands of doses of AstraZeneca to PNG while recommending that Australians under 60 not receive this vaccine due to the very low risk of blood clots.
“There are serious problems with vaccination hesitation in PNG – people who refuse to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons: vaccine concerns, sorcery concerns, stigma concerns,” Prouse said. “These are issues that really put Australia at risk of the next variant on our doorstep.
“This is not a situation where you hand out a brochure and walk away. You have to win hearts and minds, you have to convince people [the vaccine] is not to be feared and will save your life, ”he said.
“I think the best part is that the Australian government is funding the local organizations that have the reach and confidence of the communities to get into the communities.”