SYDNEY (Reuters) – Rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections in hospitals in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea were hitting its fragile health system “like a tornado”, with services shutting as staff fall ill, health workers said on Wednesday.
Australia said it would send 8,000 vaccines to its northern neighbour Papua New Guinea, responding to a request for urgent assistance for the country’s small health workforce of 5,000 nurses and doctors.
David Ayres, country director with Marie Stopes PNG, which has nurses in 13 hospitals, told Reuters health workers throughout the country were falling ill. He had received multiple reports from hospitals on Wednesday that between 10 and 25 staff had fallen ill and were off work.
Sections of major hospitals were shutting down and services were reduced, he said.
“The health system here was fragile to begin with. Frontline health services are often delivered late, sometimes they can’t be delivered at all, because of logistical or funding constraints,” Ayres told Reuters by telephone from the Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby.
“When you have a tornado like this that rips into the heart of the health system the potential for a calamity is huge. That is what is scaring all of us at the moment.”
Papua New Guinea has high rates of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV in the community and health workers fear if they are overrun with COVID cases treatment of these other diseases will suffer.
Only 55,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted in a population of 8.78 million, where 87% of people live in rural areas, many in isolated mountainous villages.
By Tuesday, PNG had reported 2,351 cases and 26 deaths since the start of the pandemic, with half of the cases recorded this month, and 600 in the past week.
Over 1,000 cases are in the National Capital District of Port Moresby, where the courts and government offices have shutdown in recent days after judges and lawmakers fell ill.
More than 100 workers including doctors and nurses at the Port Moresby General Hospital were in isolation, The National newspaper in Port Moresby reported.
“We are over-stressed. This is beyond our capacity,” the hospital’s chief executive Dr Paki Molumi was quoted as saying.
Pamela Toliman, a scientist at the PNG Institute of Medical Research which does testing, wrote on Twitter there is a “huge lag in updating this data”, and “cases are much higher” than the tally reported on Tuesday.
WaterAid Papua New Guinea’s director of programmes Navara Kiene said hand washing was the first line of defence against the spread of disease, but only only a third of households in rural areas have a handwashing facility with soap and water.
ChildFund PNG country director Bridgette Thorold said staff are taking sanitiser and PPE into villages and trying to overcome “fear and stigma and misconceptions about COVID”.
Many people live in crowded households and need to walk long distances to access health services for tuberculosis, she said.
“COVID didn’t initially seem that extreme compared to the challenges of day to day living and dealing with regular illnesses,” Thorold said in a telephone interview.
“All of last year there was less than a thousand cases so there was a scepticism. But now you are seeing health personnel with COVID.”
PNG Prime Minister James Marape is expected to announce details of a national isolation strategy later on Wednesday.
Thorold said many people earn daily cash wages by selling vegetables at markets, so a lockdown would be difficult.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)