Ship sail

Key Aust cruise ship in Vanuatu race

A former Australian cruise ship converted into a floating COVID vaccination clinic is in a race against time as the island nation of Vanuatu prepares to reopen to the world.

By mid-May, 82% of adults in the Pacific nation had received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 75% fully vaccinated.

The Omicron variant has also “spread rapidly” across the affected islands, according to Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health.

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With some natural immunity and vaccination rates being what they are, authorities are happy to reopen to tourists on July 1.

But Director General of Health Russel Tamata admits vaccination rates differ between major centers and more remote areas.

The logistics of cold chain management, the remoteness of fixed health posts and the reduced availability of health workers are all factors.

“The geographical nature of Vanuatu, with 83 islands scattered across an archipelago 1,300 kilometers long, makes it quite difficult to coordinate a vaccination effort,” Tamata said.

“On top of that, access to some remote island villages is quite difficult with access only by boat and no road access.”

To reach some of the remote islands, the former Australian cruise ship was converted into a medical response vessel, complete with cold chain storage.

At least five cabins were demolished to make space for necessities like a vaccine preparation room and a storage area.

Fridges resembling those in Australian hospitals have been wired in so that an alarm will go off if any part of the cold chain fails.

Australian social enterprise Respond Global is working with Vanuatu ministry officials to deliver the rollout, with private funding from a philanthropist.

The ship has previously been tasked with carrying urgent supplies of oxygen cylinders, fuel and other medical equipment from a DFAT donation to Pentecost Island, site of the most recent COVID-19 outbreak, said Respond Global founder Ian Norton.

“The vessel then moved to Luganville to prepare for deployment to the west coast of Santo.

“Also called the Weather Coast, this remote area has little to no road access and has received very little medical assistance for the past two years.”

The return of international tourists is generally seen as positive, but there are concerns about the pace of vaccine rollout in the country.

“They’re concerned that they haven’t had a chance to vaccinate everyone, especially in these outer islands,” Dr Norton said.

“Some villages say, ‘Where the hell have you been? Why weren’t you here months ago? and immediately mobilized the whole village to come down and participate.

But enthusiasm can change by region, and there are areas where vaccine hesitancy persists.

Local and provincial teams will help guide the operation.

“Provincial groups usually know which areas have had problems and have some hesitation, and we’re taking a much slower approach there,” Dr Norton said.

“They are in a much better position, they have the local language (and) local cultural experience that we could never have.”

The four-month program will cover all six provinces of the country and include 63 permanently inhabited islands, starting with low coverage areas.

The ship, HELPR1, will also carry local experts in specialist areas such as eye health, ear, nose and throat, dental care, primary care and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

As part of the program’s legacy, HELPR1 will remain in Vanuatu for use in the delivery of ongoing local responses in the Pacific.

“This vessel will be vital for our national health teams to reach our hard-to-reach areas, especially for COVID vaccination coverage before our borders reopen,” said Vanuatu Health Minister Bruno Leingkone.

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Pierre Fray

Pierre Fray
Chief Editor

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