Papua New Guinea has vaccinated more than 1.18 million children under the age of five during the nationwide polio immunization campaign conducted in November 2020.
Led by the National Department of Health (NDOH), the polio campaign reached more than 91% of the target 1.3 million children under 5 years of age with the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) drops. Additionally, more than 1.034 million children (91%) between the age of 6 months and 5 years were also given Vitamin A capsules, while more than 908,000 children (91.8%) aged 1-5 years were given de-worming chewable medicine (Mebendazole) during the campaign.
Held in the middle of the pandemic, the campaign ensured that safety measures were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It provided an opportunity to protect children who have missed out on vital immunizations when services were disrupted due to the pandemic.
The campaign mobilized more than 9,000 health workers and community leaders across the country under the leadership of the Provincial Health Authorities (PHAs).
“I commend the Government of Papua New Guinea and the health workers across the country for this remarkable achievement in protecting children against polio and boosting their immunity with the provision of Vitamin A and deworming tablets even in the middle of the pandemic,” says Dr Luo Dapeng, WHO Representative in PNG. “The success of the campaign is attributed to the effective leadership, commitment and good preparation at the national and provincial levels.”
The nationwide vaccination was made available through combination of fixed sites in health facilities and aid posts and through mobile outreach, with health workers travelling by road, sea or air transportation to reach urban and rural areas in most remote and hard-to-reach locations.
The campaign is one of the country’s strategies in preventing any outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases like polio and to continue to advocate for increased coverage of routine immunization.
Keeping the momentum of protecting PNG children against polio and other diseases
In June 2018, Papua New Guinea declared a national health emergency after poliovirus was detected in a 6-year old child from Morobe Province. The polio outbreak spread throughout PNG, causing a total of 26 cases within a period of months. This led to eight rounds of polio campaigns in 2018-2019, including three sub-national and five nationwide vaccination campaigns.
The country’s low immunization rates is a key factor behind the 2018 polio outbreak, and the way forward is to strengthen the PHAs so they can raise routine immunization coverage nationwide. “The 2018 polio outbreak reminds us of the importance of routine immunization”, adds Dr Dapeng.
According to the World Health Organization in PNG, the 2018 polio outbreak was brought under control only after repeated immunization campaigns were led successfully by the NDOH and the PHAs. WHO Representative, Dr Luo Dapeng, commended the PNG Government for their firm leadership in bringing polio under control. “Even though COVID-19 has put a strain in the health system and the delivery of essential health services such as routine immunization, the polio campaign was a great opportunity to increase immunization coverage and ensure that no child is left behind,” added Dr Dapeng.
Immunization protects country from outbreaks
The 2020 polio vaccination campaign is a critical intervention to push for routine immunization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent outbreaks.
In July 2019, PNG integrated measles and rubella vaccines into the last round of the polio vaccination. The integrated campaign vaccinated 1.28 million children under five years old against polio while 1.17 million children aged 6 months to 5 years got vaccinated against measles-rubella. The campaign mobilized more than 12000 health workers and volunteers who were trained as vaccinators, surveillance officers and mobilizers in one of the biggest vaccination campaigns in the country.
The strategic decision to integrate measles-rubella vaccines prevented a potential measles outbreak that affected several Pacific countries in 2019 and boosted immunity of millions of children.
During the polio campaign in November 2020, the Government of PNG successfully integrated administration of Vitamin A and deworming medicine into the vaccination campaign as demonstrated by the high coverage for both Vitamin A and deworming tablets. These interventions can improve child health overall and help to ensure our children are ready to meet the challenges of the day.
Integrating COVID-19 response and routine immunization during the polio campaign
The polio campaign provided an opportunity for many provinces to integrate routine immunization and COVID-19 response activities.
“The integrated approach was a cost-effective way in addressing immunization and COVID-19 related services to the unreached population in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country,” stressed Dr Dapeng.
“Our health workers who went house-to-house for the vaccinations also ensured they informed the communities about COVID-19 and integrated and assisted in contact tracing and other response measures,” highlighted Dr Dapeng.
Keeping everyone safe from COVID-19 by ensuring adherence to “new normal” protocols
Health workers ensured that COVID-19 protocols such as wearing of masks, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, crowd control and other New Normal (Niupela Pasin) measures were followed during the vaccination campaigns.
To ensure compliance, four “new normal” indicators were included in the main intra-campaign monitoring tools, such as crowd control, physical distancing, hand washing or sanitizers and wearing of mask. Of the total 331 immunization sessions monitored and supervised in 17 provinces during the early stage of the campaign, majority of the visited immunization sites (93%) were maintaining crowd control well, physical distancing (74%), practice of hand washing (77%) and almost 60 % of the visited sites practiced wearing of face mask.
The intra-campaign monitoring was an opportunity to provide on-the-job training on vaccination as well as COVID-19 preventive measures during the immunization sessions.
Commending the health workers of Papua New Guinea
Health workers, under extreme conditions and overstretched health system, had been instrumental in the success of the polio campaign.
“We have seen the amazing commitment of the health workers of PNG as they walked long hours through the bushes and mountains, sailed across rough seas and drove through muddy and bumpy roads to reach the most hard-to-reach areas of PNG, and for that, we are thankful for your service,” added Dr Dapeng.
“We thank you for your hard work and commitment and for delivering excellent service to the children of Papua New Guinea by having them vaccinated against polio and other diseases.”
The polio vaccination campaign was led by the Government of Papua New Guinea, the NDOH and PHAs, with support from WHO and UNICEF. Funding for the campaign was provided by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, Rotary International, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US-CDC) and the Governments of Australia and Zealand.