Boots on the ground: front-line field epidemiology experience in Papua New Guinea

Dr Hendrik Camphor help combat polio in PNG
24 January 2020

The Master of Applied Epidemiology (MAE) isn’t just about book-smarts. The program trains students to rapidly respond to health threats on the ground in Australia and overseas. MAE Scholar Dr Hendrik Camphor learnt firsthand about the challenges and rewards of filed work when he deployed to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in February 2019. There he assisted in the international emergency response to an outbreak of polio, which PNG declared a national public health emergency in June 2018.

Dr Hendrik’s deployment was coordinated through the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network, with support from the MAE program and the Australian Government Department of Health, where he completed his MAE field placement.

Camphor completed two days of induction training at the National Emergency Operations Centre in Port Moresby, and was then posted to Kokopo, the provincial capital of East New Britain province. As a WHO consultant, Dr Camphor coordinated and supported the provincial public health authorities in preparation for the first round of supplementary immunisation activities (SIAs) scheduled for 2019. This included operational planning, logistical preparation and workforce training, as well as raising community awareness.

My arrival in East New Britain coincided with the commencement of Phase II (2019) of the Polio Emergency Outbreak Response, where I was responsible for management and coordination of the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre,” says Dr Camphor.

“I worked very closely with my colleagues at the East New Britain provincial health department, mainly to facilitate resolution of identified gaps in logistics, human resources, transportation and other challenges to ensure a smooth and successful oral polio vaccine immunisation campaign in East New Britain.”

Other tasks Dr Camphor completed included updating immunisation coverage tools to support daily SIA coverage analysis and reporting; supervising development of the provincial and district-level micro-plans to be aligned with the National Outbreak Response Plan; and delivering refresher training to vaccinators, community mobilisers and campaign supervisors.

Polio panel discussion on Radio East New Britain to raise community awareness of the importance of childhood immunisation against vaccine-preventable diseases.

Refresher training for provincial health staff and vaccination teams.

Although East New Britain province had achieved high immunisation coverage rates in previous rounds of SIAs in 2018, one of the key challenges Dr Camphor and his colleagues faced was planning for an immunisation campaign during the wet season. The frequent tropical downpours and flooding destroyed infrastructure and made road access to various areas impossible. Amongst other things, this required developing a budget and plan to deliver critical immunisation supplies and vaccination teams to remote villages by helicopter.

Severe flooding and damage to infrastructure created challenges for planning and implementation of the polio immunisation campaign in East New Britain province.

Dr Camphor found the experience both personally and professionally rewarding.

“In addition to the spectacular tropical scenery and volcanic landscape, the main highlight for me was meeting and working with the dedicated and welcoming provincial health team in East New Britain. Despite all the challenges we faced, my colleagues were always there to offer guidance with good humour and a positive, can-do attitude,” says Dr Camphor.

“The deployment also offered an invaluable opportunity to gain frontline experience as a field epidemiologist deployed in an international outbreak response. The mission tested my professional resilience, flexibility and problem-solving skills in a limited-resource setting which presented multiple concurrent operational, logistical and environmental challenges.”

“I am grateful to the MAE program and the Australian Government Department of Health for supporting me in pursuing such an exciting and rewarding professional development experience, whilst at the same time contributing to improved public health outcomes in Australia’s nearest geographic neighbour.”