Papua New Guinea

Public health posters in PNG’s East New Britain Province (2021). Credit: Parrotfish Journey / Shutterstock.com

Status: Completed response

October 2021: A team of ten medical specialists arrived in Papua New Guinea in response to a call for international assistance, following a sharp surge in COVID-19 cases.

Health services were under severe pressure, with many of the country’s doctors and nurses exhausted or becoming infected and unable to work. 

A team of ten international medical and logistics experts travelled to Papua New Guinea as part of the UK Emergency Medical Team (UK EMT) to address critical gaps in patient care in the Western Highlands, one of the worst affected regions in the country hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Delta variant, first detected a few months prior, spread across the entire country. Record numbers of new cases and deaths were recorded in October (peaking at 2354 new cases in the first week of October 2021); and it’s expected that these numbers were an underestimation of the true extent of the crisis due to the country’s low testing rate.

On 22nd October 2021, there had been:

25,769 confirmed cases of COVID-19;

312 reported deaths from the virus;

and just 0.75% of the population fully vaccinated.

Situation in Papua New Guinea

Gerehu Markets in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (2013). Credit: Ness Kerton / AusAid

Papua New Guinea already faces a critical shortage of doctors and nurses with the ratio of doctors and nurses to its population of 9 million being one of the lowest in the world.

British High Commissioner Keith Scott said the arrival of UK medical expertise is much appreciated, not just in helping the PNG medical authorities tackle the current surge but also in building capacity that will enable PNG – and Western Highlands in particular – cope better with future health emergencies.

Countrywide vaccine hesitancy had led to desperately low vaccination rates (0.7% of the population had been vaccinated by October 2021), however, it in the same month, it had been reported that vaccination centres had started to pop up across the capital with people seen lining up to get vaccinated.

With more than 800 languages, Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Located in the southwestern Pacific, its closest neighbours are Indonesia, Australia and the Solomon Islands.  Some 80% of Papua New Guinea’s people live in rural areas with few or no modern facilities and low access to health care.

The response

The UK Emergency Medical Team of ten, led by Pete Sykes – a highly experienced humanitarian health programme manager – included experts in emergency medicine, critical care, infection prevention and control, risk communications and community engagement and logistics.

The team delivered hands on clinical care in the emergency wards at Mt Hagen Hospital, the main provincial hospital in the Western Highlands; improving the infection prevention and control procedures within the hospital including delivering basic and refresher training and working to support community outreach teams to reduce vaccine hesitancy and stigma around virus.

This vital work helped to alleviate some of the pressures felt by national health care workers.

With thanks to the British people via funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

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