Vaccinating Some of World’s Remotest Communities Tests Australia

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit last year, the remoteness of Outback communities helped protect Indigenous Australians. Now that isolation is making the Covid-19 vaccine rollout the biggest logistical challenge in a generation.

Fleets of trucks, planes and helicopters are setting off this week to reach communities from the remote deserts of Western Australia to the tropical rainforests and islands of Far North Queensland. More than 30 health teams operated by Aboriginal communities are involved in the effort that’s initially targeting Indigenous people aged over 55.

Vaccinating Some of World’s Remotest Communities Tests Australia

Marcia Langton, associate provost at the University of Melbourne and descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations, is one of the people involved in spreading awareness about vaccination. “Our community will be healthier by having as many people vaccinated as possible,” she said in a broadcast to social media.

Indigenous Australians are among the nation’s most vulnerable people due to higher rates of underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. The rollout is being made all the more urgent by an outbreak in neighboring Papua New Guinea -- which is just a four-kilometer (2.5 mile) boat ride away and visible to the naked eye from the nearest populated Torres Strait island of Saibai, one of 274 islands between the northern tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

It is an effort being replicated in other nations such as Canada, which is also rushing to vaccinate its vulnerable Indigenous population. The nation has the second-slowest vaccine rollout of the Group of Seven, behind only Japan, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, but is vaccinating areas with large Indigenous populations at more than five times the rate of the rest of the country according to a government spokesperson.

Vaccinating Some of World’s Remotest Communities Tests Australia

“This vaccine effort is the greatest in global history,” said Marlow Coates, northern director of medical services for the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service. “We only need to look overseas to see the impact Covid-19 is having.”

Prior to the pandemic, a special treaty allowed villagers from Saibai and PNG to travel back and forth freely, to trade and engage in traditional activities. Closing porous borders and restricting access to Indigenous communities has been successful in reducing the spread of the virus, with just 150 cases in remote Australian communities and no deaths, according to Jason Agostino, an epidemiologist at the Australian National University who has worked mainly in the field of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Vaccinating Some of World’s Remotest Communities Tests Australia

The Queensland rollout of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine has been fastracked and prioritized, with shots rushed to the Thursday Island Hospital hub by the Commonwealth Government. The island, only accessible by boat or plane, is roughly 40 kilometers off the northern coast of the mainland and about 800 kilometers north of the nearest major city, Cairns. The shots are loaded into small portable refrigerators in planes and helicopters and distributed across the islands of the Torres Strait.

About 80% of the adult population on Saibai has been vaccinated, said Coates, who was on the island for the past week. The outreach team rolled out shots on Dauan Island on Monday, vaccinated 64 out of a possible 80 members of the community, flew back to Thursday Island that evening and headed over to Boigu Island on Tuesday morning for the rest of the week.

Linfox Pty Ltd. and DHL Express Australia Pty Ltd, partnering with Qantas Airways Ltd are among companies selected to transport the shots across Australia.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Australia’s iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) has flown covid support where no one else can. The service has offered support to federal health services to reach “some 70 remote locations across the country,” according to Lana Mitchell of the RFDS. These areas tend to be very challenging in terms of both extreme heat and distance when it comes to a vaccine roll-out requiring complex cold-chain supply, Mitchell said.

Vaccinating Some of World’s Remotest Communities Tests Australia

Getting refrigerated vaccines to the often scorching Top End is one thing -- rallying the community to receive the shot is another.

Wide uptake rests upon spreading trusted information and putting Aboriginal leaders at the center of decision-making, said Agostino. It’s a similar story in Canada, and among the Navajo in the U.S., he said.

“Leaders are making it clear they’re the ones requesting vaccines to protect their community,” he said. If it is “clear to the community that their First Nations leaders are driving this” then fast and excellent vaccine uptake is following, he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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