Herman Luk, a two-year old boy from Finschafen District of Morobe Province was vaccinated against measles, rubella and polio in the most unconventional way. The new Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea Hon. James Marape personally administered the oral polio vaccine, and hugged him afterwards at the vaccination post in Angau Hospital in Lae on 14 June 2019.
“If you think your child is important, then bring your child (under 5 years old) for be vaccinated”, Prime Minister Marape highlighted in his message to the parents. “We must make Papua New Guinea polio-free again.”
Herman is just one of the more than 1 million children under five years old in Papua New Guinea who are targeted in the ongoing nationwide free vaccination campaign against three dangerous diseases: measles, rubella and polio. The 3-week campaign that started on 11 June 2019 is led by the National Department of Health, with support from the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and other partners.
The integrated measles-rubella and polio campaign implemented in the country follows a series of polio vaccination campaigns in Papua New Guinea after a confirmation of a polio outbreak in June 2018. To date, the country has conducted seven rounds of polio campaigns, including three sub-national vaccinations (July 2018, August 2018, December 2018) and four nationwide campaigns (October 2018, November 2018, March 2019 and April 2019).
More than 3.3 million children under 15 years old have received multiple doses of the polio vaccines in the last 10 months.
“We have made great progress, but the war against polio is not yet over -- we need to continue to work together to make sure every child is fully vaccinated, said Dr Luo Dapeng, WHO Representative in Papua New Guinea. “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”, he added.
The risk of measles, rubella and polio to children of PNG
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 all over the world, mostly children under the age of 5 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.
In Papua New Guinea, a measles outbreak was reported in 2014/2015 with over 70,000 suspected cases and over 2,000 confirmed cases. Out of these, 362 deaths were reported. More recently in 2017 and 2018, more cases were reported.
Measles poses a serious risk to Papua New Guinea due to a large and growing proportion of the population that is susceptible to measles. Outbreaks can happen when many children remain without vaccination – such as the underlying cause of the polio outbreak the country is experiencing.
Measles is a highly infectious disease that can spread quickly among young children. Any person, young or old, who has not been immunized, can be easily infected by measles. It is caused by a virus spread by coughing, sneezing, close personal contact or direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions. Measles kills more children than any other vaccine-preventable disease.
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.
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.
More than 12,000 workers and multiple partners mobilized to support the nationwide campaign
The measles-rubella and polio campaign is implemented from 11-30 June 2019 in all health facilities and various vaccination posts in Papua New Guinea. More than 12,000 health workers have been trained and are mobilized to support the campaign.
Children 6 months to 5 years are to be injected with measles- rubella vaccine, while children 0-5 years will be given oral polio vaccine (OPV) regardless of previous vaccination status. This exercise further demonstrates Papua New Guinea’s commitment to improve health and well-being of its children by protecting them against vaccine-preventable diseases.
Funding for the campaign is provided by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, Rotary International, and the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Korea, United Kingdom and the United States of America.
“I am optimistic that if we work together, we will be able to support the Government in reaching every child with life-saving vaccines in every part of the country”, reiterates Dr Dapeng. “We thank the partners in supporting this massive endeavour to protect children from measles, rubella and polio. Your investment in the health of the children of Papua New Guinea is an investment to their future.”