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Over a million Papua New Guinean children now vaccinated against polio

child getting vaccine injection

More than one million Papua New Guinean children are no longer vulnerable to polio since a coordinated effort to control the spread of the disease that reemerged almost a year ago.

At the heart of the response to conduct a nationwide polio vaccination program, the National Department of Health (NDOH), with the support of country-based and international partners, drove a campaign implemented at the provincial level.

Three rounds of immunisation programs have been carried out across provinces, with a fourth currently underway. Health workers, donors and volunteers have gone above and beyond to once again eradicate polio.

PNG was declared polio free by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2000, however, vaccination coverage declined severely in the years leading up to 2018.

When the first case was diagnosed in the Lufa Mountain settlement in Lae city last year, polio vaccination rates were at an all-time low. In some provinces, only 30% of children had been immunised.

Polio, an incurable and potentially fatal virus that can cause lifelong muscle paralysis is particularly dangerous in young children, however it can be prevented.

Twelve months since the PNG Government and its partners worked together to halt the spread of the disease, no new cases have been confirmed with vaccination coverage rising exponentially across the country.

The polio vaccination campaign drew support at the national and global level with organisations such as UNICEF, WHO and Oil Search Foundation (OSF) providing the kind of help needed to ensure no child is left behind. Their help also extended to logistical and technical aid.

Rotary International, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, the Canadian, South Korean, British, and Australian governments pledged funds to boost the work of partners. The PNG government committed a further K6.7 million to the cause. The polio outbreak response highlighted the work partners do to support the national priorities of a country they operate in.

The national government worked with provincial governments to respond very effectively and strategically to the outbreak, with the Provincial Health Authorities in both Hela and Southern Highlands playing a strong and decisive leadership role. The decentralized service delivery model, which often struggles in PNG, was mobilised as the effective partnership it was always meant to be, in this case drawing in other partners, to make sure all children under 15 were vaccinated.

Here, an existing innovative model of effective partnership made the work easier. These two provinces have had their fair share of challenges including natural disasters and tribal fights.

However, the level of health service delivery in Hela and Southern Highlands has been consistently improving. Over the past few years, the Hela Provincial Health Authority (PHA) and the Southern Highlands PHA have strengthened their relationship with WHO, UNICEF and OSF; all working together to improve health services in the provinces.

When the polio outbreak response was activated, they were already sufficiently equipped to deliver the emergency response polio immunisation program.

The partnerships and leadership in the provincial health authorities have resulted in nearly 100% of the target set in both provinces; an achievement in just three immunisation rounds.

“The HPHA & OSF staff and partners travelled to 17 of Hela’s most remote rural locations to conduct polio awareness, and, vaccinate our children.”
- Dr. Kintwa CEO of the Hela PHA

“We were fortunate, as we already had a cold chain process, vaccine fridges in our health facilities, vehicles and choppers available. Together, we had doctors, nurses, pilots, drivers, volunteers, and logistical staff working in the background. Many people sacrificed time with their families to help. No one wants to see sick children.” Dr Kintwa said OSF in particular provided considerable assistance to the PHA during the polio crisis. “We meet three times a week to track our progress at specially convened Task Force Meetings”, said Dr. Kintwa, CEO of the Hela PHA.

group of people traveling via boat to remote locations

While this progress is encouraging, the polio vaccination campaign is not over. Partners have committed to ensuring children living in PNG’s remotest communities are included in the success rates. Health teams have had to overcome obstacles that challenge improving health outcomes in the country. They had to trek across rivers, over mountains, through bushes and maneuvered around tribal fighting, while carrying vaccines and other supplies in heavy packs.

Most of these areas did not have electricity and running water, but a well-resourced and multi-partner emergency response demonstrated what can be done when partners work together. “The outbreak required a dedicated community approach aimed at maximising resources. It takes a great deal of logistics, travel, security and coordination to manage but that’s what is required from a true partnership,” said OSF Hela Provincial Development Manager Rodney Ingersoll. “Hela PHA’s performance on the polio campaign is highly regarded at the national level. “Rapid Convenience Monitoring surveys are conducted in villages to check that we are capturing everyone in our target group. This makes our data accurate. We capture anyone that may have been missed. PHA and OSF staff will continue working in all three districts in Hela to identify gaps from the first and second polio campaigns.”

A fifth round of immunization is planned before the end of August this year.

While this campaign is a huge undertaking that many have felt almost impossible due to PNG’s rugged terrains and remote communities, the results achieved through this partnership are proving otherwise.