Papua New Guinea has begun its rollout of the Covid vaccine with the first doses of the AstraZeneca shots supplied by Australia administered to health workers, senior statesmen and elected officials, including the prime minister, James Marape.
Marape said on Tuesday that “vaccination is not compulsory but will be made optionally available for Papua New Guineans who chose to be vaccinated”.
“I have decided to be the first to be vaccinated because of the contradicting views in the country on vaccination, with half the country going against it,” he said. “I came here to be vaccinated to show Papua New Guineans that it’s safe.”
The prime minister was speaking as 271 new Covid-19 cases were confirmed along with five deaths – taking the country’s total number of cases to 5,620 with 56 known fatalities.
Marape said the 8,000 AstraZeneca doses supplied by Australia would continue to be administered this week and would be “optionally” available for all health workers.
Marape was accompanied on Tuesday by the health secretary, Dr Osborne Liko, and Prof John Vince from the UPNG school of medicine and science, who were also vaccinated. Senior statesman Dadi Toka Snr, Sir Moi Ave, and PNG’s Olympic weightlifting gold medalist Dika Toua were also among the first 50 people to be vaccinated.
Marape said that the government was looking at all options available to them to make Covid vaccines “optionally available”.
“The department of health is working on bringing in vaccines and our good neighbor, Australia is also working on bringing in more vaccines for us,” the PM said.
“We are also working closely with the Chinese government. Once the vaccines from China are cleared by the medical board then we will bring that in as well. We are looking at all options to ensure that Covid-19 vaccines are optionally available for Papua New Guineans.”
Marape said the government was considering deploying medical students to help with the rollout. “We are also looking at bringing in health workers from overseas to support our doctors and nurses in the front lines,” he said.
The vaccination rollout at the National Football Stadium in Port Moresby is being facilitated by International SOS.
The company’s PNG medical director, Dr Shane Stockil, said the vaccinations would continue for the next three to six months.
“Due to Covid-19 safety measures, we will have groups of just 30 to come in for vaccination,” he said.
“We will monitor them for 15 minutes to see if there are any side effects and we also have a medical booth set up to deal with any severe side effects. Vaccination will be open for 18 years olds and above.”
Marape said he was aware of differing views concerning the AstraZeneca vaccine and others available on the market.
But he said he could not ignore the increasing surge in Covid-19 cases in PNG which was affecting healthcare workers and straining the fragile health system.
“I cannot stand in the way of medical workers who are always in the frontline and are very exposed to the virus,” Marape said. “There may be side effects which is why we were slow in getting the vaccination program started so that we have protocols in place to address any type of reactions to the vaccine.”
The prime minister assured healthcare workers the vaccine was safe but insisted they did not have to take it if they didn’t want to.
The health and HIV/Aids minister, Jelta Wong, told the Guardian he was feeling fine after being vaccinated.
“With all the rumours and conspiracy theories that something will go wrong, as the health minister of the country, I felt I had to stand up and volunteer for the first 50 to instill confidence in the people and reassure them that it’s OK to be vaccinated.
“A lot of infodemic on social media is scaring people so we as leaders have decided to be the first ones to be vaccinated.”