An extremely low level of agreement to vaccination by frontline nursing staff in Papua New Guinea threatens to undermine Australia's initiative to send in a million AstraZeneca vaccine doses to combat the worsening pandemic there.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said this week he had obtained a diplomatic assurance that shipment would not be officially blocked by the European Union so the pharmaceutical company should promptly provide it.
But this comes amid virulent Facebook scaremongering in PNG against vaccinations involving alleged conspiracy theories and claims of 'sorcery' as well as the exaggeration of medical risks.
A statement on Saturday from PNG's national Control Centre for COVID-19 reported three new fatalities from the virus - all men aged in their 60s - taking the country's overall death toll to 102.
The official number of coronavirus infections in the nation rose to 10,602, with 52 new cases.
Health officials have said previously the official number of cases is likely to vastly underestimate the scale of the outbreak as the country's fragile health system is unable to conduct mass testing.
Dr Pari Molumi, chief executive officer of Port Moresby General Hospital, was reported on Friday as saying that even though close to 200 of his 1600 staff had already contracted COVID-19, only 25 out of 800 nurses had agreed to be vaccinated.
As the nurses are seeing people dying from COVID-19, commentators warn this dramatically underscores the resistance that will be met to injections of the vaccine doses.
This is despite estimates there are already hundreds of thousands of infected people out of a population of nine million, with numbers climbing rapidly.
Dr Pari Molumi said that of patients coming in with symptoms, between 40 and 60 per cent had been testing positive for COVID-19.
He said about 330 doctors, nurses and support staff had been vaccinated with some of about 8000 AstraZenaca doses already donated by Australia.
While 160 medical officers, 70 per cent, had been vaccinated, this take-up rate was not reflected among other staff members.
"Unfortunately, our nurse numbers have been low, with 25 of our 800 nurses vaccinated," Dry Molumi said.
Provincial health authorities in PNG, as well as those in Port Moresby have been struggling to convince health workers to agree to be vaccinated.
Mr Tehan, speaking from London on Thursday was unable to specify when more of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be able to be distributed.
"I was able to get a very clear assurance that the EU would not stand in the way of the million vaccines that we want to send to PNG, so that was incredibly welcome," Mr Tehan said.
However, health professionals have warned that rather than just sending more vaccine doses, Australia needs to massively expand assistance to help PNG counter the anti-vaccine views circulating on social media and by word of mouth.
"It is a disaster that many nurses are refusing to be vaccinated," an expatriate businessman, who requested anonymity, said.
"If nurses won't be injected with the vaccine, how can other Papua New Guineans be expected to do so?
As well as claims of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates wanting to use vaccines as part of secret experiments and of links to sorcery, there are also suggestions 5G communication towers are spreading the virus.
And most recently, the issue of 'blood clots' has complicated the situation in PNG even though the risk has been shown statistically to be minimal.