In October 2021, the UK EMT (Emergency Medical Team) travelled to Mount Hagen to support the country’s COVID-19 response. The group of ten included UK-Med’s RCCE (Risk Communication and Community Engagement) Lead, Diana Maddah.
Dr Petronia Kaima was one of the fantastic healthcare workers we worked alongside during our COVID-19 response in Papua New Guinea. Dr Petronia is a Medical Officer working for Papua New Guinea’s National Department of Health. Before supporting the country’s COVID-19 response, she had been working on the HIV/AIDS and STI (sexually transmitted infections) programmes for the last 15 years.
Below, she explains the importance of Risk Communications and Community Engagement with Diana, the challenges she and her colleagues face, and what the future holds for RCCE in the country.
Risk communication in Papua New Guinea
With the emergence of COVID-19, Risk Communication is now playing a bigger role around the country especially around the vaccine and targeting communities and healthcare workers.
RCCE is critically important here to make sure that we develop the right information to target the right people [such as religious leaders and community leaders], so that we are able to get that information to the community, and they can make informed decisions.
We really need to improve a lot of messages as well as getting the information to the community about communicable diseases. Looking at things like HIV, our prevalence rate is still one of the highest in the Pacific region. We also have one of the highest rates of TB.
“So every day the UK team are here, they explain some of the things that are driving these rumours in terms of: where is the vaccine coming from? Are people trying to use Papua New Guineans to test the vaccine?”
The challenges of communication in one of the rural and most culturally diverse countries in the world
One of the main challenges in delivering Risk Communication is the lack of education.
Our level of education in terms of the literacy rate in PNG is – I believe it’s over 60%, and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the messages that we develop really need to be targeted based on the local context or the knowledge, so that’s been a challenge.
We also have a diverse cultural community with more than 800 languages. English is not a common language that everybody would understand. And given the fact that the literacy rate is very low, it’s makes it very difficult to communicate with communities.
Also, the health system itself – it’s challenging having the right information, the right infrastructure, the right resources, and the right leadership to actually make sure that you guide this programme effectively;
To make sure people understand and accept the information so they can change their attitudes and behaviours and make the change in the community.
Misinformation and vaccine hesitancy
With COVID-19, we are getting a lot of rumours about the infection itself and the vaccine. Our vaccination rate is still very low. I believe it’s one of the lowest in the world.
The risk communication team really clear a lot of doubts, providing us with facts and having that confidence to deliver the message that people actually want to know, so we can really target the population in addressing some of the major rumours.
So every day the UK team are here, they explain some of the things that are driving these rumours in terms of: where is the vaccine coming from? Are people trying to use Papua New Guineans to test the vaccine?
I think it’s a real benefit for us – the risk communication team – in Papua New Guinea.
“We also have a diverse cultural community with more than 800 languages. English is not a common language that everybody would understand. And given the fact that the literacy rate is very low, it’s makes it very difficult to communicate with communities.”
What’s next for the Risk Communications team
For the future sustainability, one good thing is we are strengthening the capacity – not only of the Western Islands, but at the national level. We’re building a pool of health promoters’ to go out and continue to build the capacity of other teams, which gives us the bonus of sustaining the programme in the long run.
At the national level, we’re working on the frequently asked questions and developing RCCE materials. This is one of the things that the UK EMT team have really supported. We are working on this and we will continue to develop materials based on what we have gathered together.
In the future, we’d also like to have more trainings and connect with the team virtually, so that we can continue to build that capacity and knowledge and gain as much as possible from the team.
it will take us a long-time to actually change the mindset of many people as we move forward in our response.
 Approximately 45,000 people out of the country’s 8.4 million population are living with HIV. Source: https://www.unaids.org/en/keywords/papua-new-guinea
 Literacy levels: 15 and older, 61.6%. 65 years and older, 33%. Source: http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/pg
Feature image: Diana conducting a RCCE workshop in Papua New Guinea, 2021.
We’re grateful to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) for UK Aid funding from the British people to fund this response.