More than 1 million children under five years of age in Papua New Guinea were immunised in June this year in a nationwide free vaccination campaign against three highly infectious diseases: measles, rubella and polio. Why? In 2018, Papua New Guinea saw its first polio cases in 18 years.

The measles-rubella and polio campaign was implemented following confirmation of a polio outbreak in the country in June last year.

Prime Minister Marape said, “We must make Papua New Guinea polio-free again.”

The three-week campaign began on June 11, 2019 and was led by the Papua New Guinea’s National Department of Health in all health facilities and various vaccination posts. More than 12,000 heath workers were trained and mobilised to support the campaign.

World Health Organization country representative in Papua New Guinea, Dr Luo Dapeng praised the hard work, sacrifices, courage and resilience of the PNG health workers. He said: “Those numbers (of children vaccinated) meant sleepless nights, long walks in muddy terrain, dangerous boat rides across rough seas and chopper drops in mountains and remote areas,” as reported in ‘The National’ newspaper in Port Moresby.

According to the World Health Organization, Papua New Guinea has conducted seven rounds of polio campaigns, including three sub-national vaccinations (July 2018, August 2018, December 2018) and four nation-wide campaigns (October 2018, November 2018, March 2019 and April 2019).

More than 3.30 million children under 15 years of age have received multiple doses of the polio vaccines in the last 10 months.

The affect of polio…

Polio is an infectious disease transmitted from an infected person through water or food that has been contaminated with faecal materials. It is a highly dangerous disease that permanently paralyses or kills. It has no cure, but it can be prevented through vaccination.

Measles… 

“The bigger threat to our children is measles, a disease of public health concern because of its highly infectious nature and capacity to cause serious illness and even death, especially in populations with low vaccination coverage, endemic malnutrition and limited healthcare capacity, such as Papua New Guinea. We must reduce the imminent risk of a large-scale measles outbreak and prevent another possible emergency,” said WHO country representative in PNG Dr Luo Dapeng.

According to the World Health Organization, measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases, with the potential to be extremely severe. In 2017, measles caused close to 110,000 deaths globally, mostly affecting children under the age of five years.

“The number of measles cases have continued to climb into 2019. Preliminary global data shows that reported cases rose by 300 percent in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. Outbreaks have also been reported in many countries,” reported the World Health Organization. 

And, rubella…

Rubella, although it looks mild, has severe consequences. A pregnant woman that becomes infected with this disease during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy has a high chance of passing the virus to her unborn child. The baby will then have a 90 per cent chance of having congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) at birth. A baby born with CRS may have multiple defects including heart disorders, blindness, deafness or brain damage.

Containing the polio outbreak

The Papua New Guinea Government with the support of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched an outbreak response strategy to polio, involving increased surveillance to identify all polio cases and multiple national vaccination rounds.  The strategy limited the number of people with polio to 26, with the most recent case reported in November 2018.
The financial supporters for the outbreak response were the Governments of Australia, Canada, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the USA, with additional support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, EasyJet, National Philanthropic Trust, and the UN Foundation.