Vaccination Hesitancy In Remote PNG Challenges Doctors

Remote PNG

ADI is delighted to present this occasional series of blog posts from one of our volunteer doctors currently on patrol in remote PNG. Dr. Chris as he is affectionately known will file for us over the coming month. Bio below.

Taking Covid-19 vaccines to remote parts of Papua New Guinea alone will not make the country’s highly vulnerable people safe. They also need to be willing to have the injection. Rumours and misinformation are rife, with rumours floating around that the injection will make your arm magnetic and that people who have it will go to hell.

Our team in Western Province has recently been in Mougulu, in the land of the Biami people, who as recently as the 1960s were one of the country’s few ‘uncontacted’ people. The Biami today have schools and churches, although most of them still live in wooden huts, living standards remain low and people mostly eke out a living as subsistence farmers. Children walk for hours daily to get to school, if they can get to school at all, and plenty do not attend because of the difficult daily walks.

Mougulu is about seven days’ walk from Kiunga, the administrative centre of the North Fly region, where ADI’s office for Western Province is based. Walking to Kiunga is for most people the only way to get there, if they need specialist medical care. Flights are irregular and expensive. Mougulu has a small health centre, where a small group of health workers routinely handle medical emergencies that would be sent to large hospitals in Australia.

On our patrol, we brought AstraZeneca vaccines from Kiunga, and we managed to use most of them, vaccinating more than 172 people in the area, an unusually high uptake. It followed intensive efforts by local community leaders to convince the people that the vaccine was safe and was advisable, which we followed up on, and some people at least have understood. We also detected two positive Covid-19 cases.

But a three-hour hiking trip to one village, crossing several rivers and climbing many steep and slippery slopes, carrying vaccines to offer, showed the difficulties. Despite the best efforts of local health worker Paul Isilawa to persuade them, not one person was willing to be vaccinated and we walked back to Mougulu with the two vials of vaccine still unopened. Despite the different terrain, it has echoes of other countries where people refused the vaccine and downplayed the risk of the disease. We cannot force people to get vaccinated.

It is going to take more than just sending in enough vaccines to protect Western Province from Covid-19. And the province needs protecting. Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, leprosy, malaria and several other less well known diseases diseases are all still major problems, and its people could be very vulnerable. Covid-19 is here and Kiunga Hospital has recently had to temporarily close its doors because of it. With social distancing and lockdowns hard to enforce in Papua New Guinea, it is hard to see another way to stop it than through vaccination.

 

Dr. Chris McCall was a foreign correspondent, writing at various times for Reuters, The Economist, Agence France-Presse and few other bits and pieces you might know of. Then something possessed him to re-train as a doctor. Now he finds himself in Papua New Guinea as a volunteer doctor with ADI, based in Kiunga, Western Province. Most of the time these days he is a remote area GP in far-flung parts of Australia.

He likes languages, strange places, taking photos and speaks French, Spanish and Malay/Indonesian in addition to his native English. His patients mostly call him Chris, or if being really formal, ‘Dr. Chris’.

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