NOOSA – Papua New Guinea has registered nearly 18,000 Covid infections and is approaching 200 deaths but medical experts say official statistics are likely to be highly inaccurate.
This is because of unidentified deaths, sick people not seeking treatment, low levels of testing, illness and deaths unreported or attributed to other causes and poor data gathering.
The available figures dramatically underestimate the severity of Covid’s impact in a country where fewer than 100,000 people have been vaccinated, much less than one percent of the population, and complacency is said to have set in even among health workers.
PNG went through much of last year with low case numbers.
It is possible that a contributing factor was PNG’s young population, which may have partially insulated the country the crisis occurring earlier.
But it also seems likely this made people complacent, or believing the falsehood that Papua New Guineans possess some 'special' resistance to Covid.
But the Delta variant, which has been in PNG since a seafarer unwittingly transmitted it in late July, could be more dangerous to young people, and PNG is now experiencing an upsurge in cases.
While earlier strains of the virus were most deadly among the elderly, Professor Jason Kovacic, director of Sydney's Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says Delta could be putting young, healthy people at greater risk of fatal heart complications.
“We're certainly seeing a few more cases of cardiac complications in younger people from Delta,” Dr Kovaviv said.
The authoritative Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA report a “very high level” of Covid in PNG and advise people to avoid travelling to the country.
CDC says even fully vaccinated people may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid there.
The United Nations has referred to PNG’s Covid outbreak as “devastating” and says “people’s resistance to Covid prevention is a deadly risk”.
Meanwhile, the health system is stretched to breaking point and few people follow public health precautions.
On Monday six cases were recorded at the national pandemic control centre - Covid's tentacles reaching into the heart of the fight against the disease.
PNG has been receiving a steady flow of vaccines in recent months.
But the vaccination rate is very low, and logistics remains a problem - recently more than 130,000 vaccines expired and could not be used.
Squabbling between Australia and China about vaccine delivery has only exacerbated an already high level of confusion about vaccination.
As more donations of vaccine arrive from various sources – China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm, New Zealand and Australia’s AstraZeneca, the USA’s single dose Johnson & Johnson, and COVAX’s SII-AstraZeneca (Covishield) version – this may be further adding to the confusion that already exists.
The Lowy Institute has said that PNG’s National Department of Health needs to strengthen its vaccination outreach programs and focus on educating and empowering local health care workers and communities to get vaccinated and stop the spread of misinformation.