Immunization campaign kicks off to prevent disease outbreaks in Papua New Guinea’s quake-hit region

Within days of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Medeline Luk heard shouts from her neighbours. From a long distance, they were telling her the news: nurses are coming to the village to vaccinate children.

Nattha Keenapan
Medeline Luk, mother of six from Bela village in earthquake affected Southern Highlands Province walked for two hours with her children across rugged terrain to access vaccination services for her children provided by the Government and supported by UNICEF.
UNICEF PNG/2018/Nybo
26 April 2018

Within days of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Medeline Luk heard shouts from her neighbours. From a long distance, they were telling her the news: nurses are coming to the village to vaccinate children.

“I never heard about vaccination before,” said Medeline, who lives in Bela, a remote village in the mountainous Southern Highlands Province.

Medeline has six children. They were all delivered at home without any assistance from a health worker. Two of them died, one within a month due to pneumonia and another at age 2 due to heart disease. Her other four children, aged between 4 months and 9 years, have never seen any medical staff or health workers. None of them have been vaccinated.

On the vaccination day, Medeline and her children walked two hours across rugged terrain to the village’s meeting ground which was temporarily turned into a vaccination site. Nearly a hundred mothers, babies and young children gathered when a group of nurses arrived. Like Medeline’s children, many children in Bela village and across quake-affected highlands region have never been vaccinated before.

“We are really worried about the disease outbreaks as children here already have low immunity,” Dr. Ridwan Gustiana, UNICEF Immunization Officer said. “Disease like measles can spread quickly during emergencies like these and can lead to serious complications. So we really need to make sure that children are immunized.”

The immunisation team sets up in the village.
UNICEF PNG/2018/Nybo
The immunisation team sets up in the village.

According to PNG’s National Department of Health, about 70–80 per cent of children in the severely-affected provinces are not protected against preventable diseases. In 2016, routine measles coverage in Southern Highlands and Hela provinces was just 18.2 per cent and 27.6 per cent, respectively.

In the quake-hit areas, UNICEF and WHO are now supporting the Government to conduct a measles and rubella immunization campaign for children under 5 years old to curb the risk of potential outbreaks. A few days after the earthquake, UNICEF distributed vaccines to the affected communities to protect some 31,700 children against measles and rubella, pertussis, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Challenges after the quakes

The February 26 earthquake of 7.5 magnitude and its nearly 200 aftershocks have caused severe damage to nearly 65 per cent of health facilities in Hela and Southern Highland provinces. Some 13 per cent of health facilities remain closed. More than half have no water and sanitation facilities. The PNG Government estimated 270,000 people are in need of urgent assistance, including 125,000 children. Of which, 55,000 are children under five years old.

Almost two months after the earthquakes, aid delivery including immunization has been challenging. Many affected communities are hard to reach due to mountainous terrain, with little to no road access.

“Villages are scattered and health facilities are a long way away,” said Mendi Mesai, Nursing Officer at Mendi/Munhiu District of the Southern Highlands Province. “We have no vehicles to reach them. Sometimes we had to walk hours, from mountain to mountain, village to village, crossing the rivers, in order to vaccinate children.”

A child receives oral polio drops.
UNICEF PNG/2018/Nybo
A child receives oral polio drops.

Rachel Sapsi, District Health Manager, said that mothers still lack awareness on the importance of immunization. Many mothers never visited a health clinic, nor heard of measles or know what vaccines look like. To advocate for the importance of immunization, local health authorities often ask priests or village counsellors to help spread the messages through church and village announcements.

Jelina Pita, is among many mothers who never took her eight-month-old daughter to a health clinic. In the previous village where she lived in, it would take her one day to walk to the health clinic.

“My daughter hasn’t been sick so I never went there,” said Jelina who took her baby to be vaccinated for the first time. “Now I know that vaccination is something she cannot miss.”

UNICEF plans to reach 50,000 children and 100,000 mothers through the immunization campaign and emergency health services. Medical supplies including vaccines with different antigens, new-born care kit, emergency health kits and solar refrigerator are also on their way.

“We are stepping up the effort to reach as many children as we can, and as quick as we can,” UNICEF’s Dr. Gustiana said. “We need protect children before a new emergency arise from the disease outbreaks.”