Australia sends COVID medical team to PNG

·2-min read

Australia has deployed a second medical team to help combat soaring infections and a struggling health system in Papua New Guinea.

A team of 17 nurses, doctors, emergency care specialists and infectious disease experts will assist Port Moresby General Hospital in handling its most urgent cases.

"We're aiming to work closely with the PNG government to help it strengthen its response to the COVID-19 crisis," intensive care expert Catherine Tacon told reporters on Friday.

"Particularly, our focus will be on helping them strengthen their response in the health emergency operations centre and capacity to build their critical care responses."

The Pacific nation, which lies just kilometres from Australia's northernmost islands, is facing a crisis as its health systems grapple with a steep rise in infections.

"They're stretched at the moment and that's what we're going in there to try and help," Dr Tacon said.

PNG's official COVID-19 death toll stood on April 5 at 67 with more than 7400 infections.

"It's certainly very concerning, we don't have exact numbers. It has been increasing and doubled since about February," Dr Tacon said.

Australian officials say that tally vastly underestimates the extent of the crisis as PNG doesn't mass test.

The island's biggest hospitals have reported positive results rates as high as 80 per cent.

The Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) will join an advance team of three sent to assess the country's overburdened health system on March 23.

The 17 will remain in PNG for about four weeks pending further assessment.

They flew from RAAF Darwin on Friday with two pallets of supplies, including aspirators, defibrillators, vital signs monitors, an X-ray machine, refrigerators and eskies to store vaccines.

No vaccine was aboard the plane and the team won't be inoculating people, Dr Tacon said.

With a sprawling population of roughly nine million, PNG has started a modest vaccination program using 8480 AstraZeneca doses sent by Australia.

It's also expected to receive 132,000 jabs of AstraZeneca from India next week. It was due to get another 588,000 through global sharing scheme COVAX by the end of June but that looks increasingly unlikely.

Export restrictions were placed on vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India amid a deadly second local infection wave.

Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said in March PNG's hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed and many health workers were already infected.

The AUSMAT team will also help Port Moresby General Hospital establish an emergency operations centre, along with a respiratory triage centre.

Specialist advice will also be given on best responding to the infections surge and co-ordinating support for PNG's health department and the World Health Organisation.

"We've got a very good relationship with PNG and it's very important. They're very keen to have AUSMAT across," Dr Tacon said.