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World

Misinformation fuels Papua New Guinea's Covid crisis

  • After a year without widespread community transmission, the impoverished Melanesian nation is now seeing record numbers of new infections almost every day.
26 Mar, 2021

PORT MORESBY: Misinformation threatens to scuttle Papua New Guinea's already faltering efforts to bring a severe Covid-19 outbreak under control, with a survey showing one-in-four health workers are reluctant to get vaccinated.

After a year without widespread community transmission, the impoverished Melanesian nation is now seeing record numbers of new infections almost every day.

Hospitals have turned away patients due to a shortage of medical staff, who are falling ill or being forced to isolate.

With experts warning the health system is close to collapse, neighbouring Australia this week sent an emergency batch of 8,000 vaccines to inoculate frontline staff.

But misinformation may be spreading faster than the virus, with large proportions of the public and even medical experts reluctant to get vaccinated.

AFP Fact Check has debunked several widely shared posts on Facebook -- which along with WhatsApp is the country's dominant digital media platform -- that falsely claimed Papua New Guineans are being forcibly vaccinated as part of a mass vaccine trial, or in one case, as part of a racial genocide.

Gary Nou, a Port Moresby emergency department physician, asked more than 130 colleagues whether they would get inoculated -- 24 percent said they would refuse, and 37 percent were unsure, he told AFP.

"Health workers themselves are upset, and they don't know if the vaccine is going to help them or not," he said.

"People were telling them it was 'all experimental and it's genetic therapy, and people are gonna die', they were copying all the videos that were popping up on social media."

"These are educated health workers," he added.

Health minister Jelta Wong gave AFP government polling which also shows significant vaccine scepticism among the broader public, with many citing safety or religious concerns.

The survey found that nearly 10 percent of Papua New Guineans would refuse a vaccine, with the figure above a quarter of the population in some provinces.

Glen Mola, a professor who works at Port Moresby General Hospital, told AFP if medical workers refused vaccination because of misinformation, the country's health system could collapse.

"Once you get 20 percent down in some of the high-intensity areas, like the emergency department and the labour ward, for instance, they just can't function," he said.

Even in normal times Papua New Guinea faces an acute shortage of medical staff, with fewer than 30,000 personnel serving a population of nine million.

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