Clear information important when encouraging COVID-19 vaccine uptake in PNG
The Australian Humanitarian Partnership (AHP) COVID-19 response efforts in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are focused on supporting the Government of PNG’s national vaccine rollout. AHP partners are working alongside Provincial Health Authorities and government and church health service providers to provide communities, schools and the private sector with information on COVID-19 vaccines and the opportunity to be vaccinated.
The vaccine arrived before people understood the virus
Based in Kiunga in the North Fly District of PNG’s Western Province, World Vision PNG staff members Patricia Aisa and Dr Sonia Madjus are part of the AHP response.
Patricia and Dr Sonia both reported that COVID-19 vaccine uptake to date had been slow, citing social media and false information as key drivers behind a widespread hesitancy to get vaccinated. They also noted that awareness campaigns needed to go further than simply telling people that getting vaccinated is important.
Patricia explained that the COVID-19 vaccine became available at a time when people were still seeking answers to questions related to the virus itself.
“In terms of people’s knowledge about COVID-19, I believe people are aware of COVID-19. They received information on doing certain things like washing their hands, wearing masks and social distancing. But they wanted to know why this was important with COVID-19.”
“Then the vaccine came but people were still trying to get more information on the virus itself. They were feeling scared,” said Patricia.
Communities and health workers wanted to know more about vaccines
As the vaccine roll-out began, it became apparent that health workers themselves were often hesitant when it came to COVID-19 vaccines. This posed a risk to the roll-out, as without health worker confidence in the vaccine, community outreach and uptake was likely to be less effective.
“Health professionals have been vaccinating kids all their working lives. Now they were suddenly required to vaccinate adults and I believe they were not always seeing the connection between childhood vaccine programs and the COVID-19 vaccine. They need more training on what vaccines are, how they are made and what happens in the body when someone receives a vaccine,” explained Patricia.
The World Vision PNG team quickly realised that community members were seeking a lot of information about the vaccines during awareness sessions, and they took care to explain how vaccines work and to answer any questions people had.
“When Dr Sonia explains the vaccine, people are so interested. They want to know what the vaccine is made of, when it gets into the body what work does it do, what are the side effects. And when Dr Sonia explains all of that nicely in detail, that is when people come out to get vaccinated themselves,” said Patricia.
Working alongside government
World Vision PNG is working with the Provincial Health Authority in Western Province to support them with the vaccine roll-out, which is part of the Government of PNG’s ‘Sleeves Up’ campaign. This support ranges from training, to logistics and accommodation for staff.
Additionally, the World Vision PNG team is participating in health patrols with the Provincial Health Authority and church health service providers. These health patrols combine COVID-19 and vaccine awareness with vaccinations, meaning people can seek information and then receive a vaccination from a health worker should they decide to do so.
Social media and mis-information a challenge
The health patrol teams have sometimes been met with resistance, something they never experienced before COVID-19. In PNG, when a village receives a visit from health workers – particularly doctors – the community normally comes out in great numbers as they often do not have easy access to health care due to the remoteness of many locations.
Dr Sonia explained that there is a clear correlation between access to social media and vaccine uptake.
“In Kiunga town, where there is easy access to social media, people are so negative about the vaccine. In more rural areas where there is no social media it is much easier to share information with the communities,” she said.
However, social media is not the only channel through which COVID-19 vaccine mis-information is being spread.
The teams recently visited a remote village in North Fly District, and did not expect to face any resistance from the community due to the remoteness of the village. However, they found a community unwilling to listen. A group of people had visited the village on the weekend prior and had played an anti-vaccination video for the community and shared a range of anti-vaccination printed materials.
“The videos and materials were seen and heard by everyone and when we went to the village, people were afraid to come out. People were expecting that we would be forcing them to get vaccinated,” Dr Sonia said.
Across the AHP response in PNG, AHP partners are reporting that the question-and-answer sessions on the vaccine program are proving the most valuable approach. Taking the time to listen to concerns, address mis-information and provide credible information is increasing vaccine uptake – but this work takes time, something that PNG may not have enough of when it comes to reducing deaths and serious illness from COVID-19 as new variants spread.
World Vision Australia is working with Save the Children Australia, World Vision PNG, the Burnet Institute, Susu Mamas PNG, CBM and the PNG Assembly of Disabled People to strengthen the GoPNG response to COVID-19 and support the implementation of the National Vaccination Roll-Out Plan. This component of the AHP Response in PNG is being implemented in Western Province, Morobe, Madang, National Capital District, East Sepik, Bougainville, Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands, Jiwaka, and Central.