Papua New Guinea has asked for World Health Organization help after a rapidly spreading new coronavirus outbreak sparked preparations for large-scale community transmission in the under-resourced country.
Having mostly dodged the COVID-19 pandemic until now, Papua New Guinea reported Thursday it had detected three new cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 30 -- up from just 11 on Sunday.
With limited coronavirus testing and many positive cases found in health workers, there are fears the virus may have a stronger foothold than those detected cases indicate.
National pandemic response controller David Manning expressed "serious concerns on the alarming rate of increase of COVID-19 cases in Port Moresby and the likely spread to the other provinces", saying there was a "high likelihood of expanded community transmission".
Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific. Its rickety health system is already under severe pressure from the widespread transmission of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, as well as one of the world's few remaining outbreaks of polio.
Port Moresby resident and mother of five Christine Tameta told AFP that the number of cases among health workers had caused deep concern.
"We are afraid to move around in case we contract the virus, especially when there is no social distancing being observed," she said, adding that her family would be staying at home as much as possible.
Against the growing threat Manning said that the WHO was in the process of mobilising international emergency medical teams to deploy to the country.
He said in a statement there was "an urgent need" for emergency health workers to help the country manage a surge in cases and administer isolation facilities.
"We are also discussing with the PNG Defence Force to assist... the Health Department. We have always said we don't have adequate facilities."
Senior health department official Esrom Doani told AFP that plans were already being drawn up for the police and Papua New Guinea Defence Forces to aid the effort.
He added that the positive cases among medical workers had prompted an investigation into whether the cause was transmission or a possible bio-security breach.
Manning admitted testing had been "very limited" in areas outside the capital, and "while there is no evidence of hospitals being overwhelmed", that could "be due to delayed reporting or poor health checking behaviour".
Papua New Guinea had largely avoided the coronavirus pandemic, until the recent outbreak