By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Misinformation shared on Facebook is the biggest threat to Papua New Guinea's COVID-19 vaccine plans and the social media giant must take steps to "stop it", the Pacific country's health minister said on Thursday.
Conspiracy theories about vaccines are so entrenched that even frontline health workers are hesitant to take the shot, Jelta Wong said at a talk with an Australian think tank that was streamed online.
"Facebook is our biggest conspiracy theorist platform," Wong said at the Lowy Institute talk, adding people should not rely on unverified claims on Facebook to guide their approach to vaccines.
"Facebook has a lot of influence here. They're supposed to have programmes where they stop these types of things. Facebook must take responsibility of this and stop it."
False claims and conspiracies have proliferated on social media platforms during the pandemic, but distrust in PNG is unusually deep-seated, local health leaders say, hurting the island's prospects of recovery as infections spike.
Facebook Inc is committed to removing "false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccine, including conspiracy theories", its director of public policy for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, Mia Garlick, said in an email.
"Conversations about vaccines tend to be nuanced, so we're continuing to work with health experts, including the World Health Organization, to make sure that our approach and our policies are in the right place," she added.
'SHOULDN'T BE GIVING ANY OXYGEN'
Still, peddlers of bogus claims continue to evade Facebook's policing by disseminating their views via comments beneath legitimate news items, experts noted.
"Someone will post a story as simple as the prime minister being vaccinated ... and then the comments that come under it, it just turns into this frenzied discussion," David Ayres, country director for family planning clinic Marie Stopes, said by telephone from PNG's capital, Port Moresby.
Ayres said in his organisation, about 40 out of 100 employees were opposed or reluctant to take the vaccine.
"When those people are interacting in their community, interacting with their family, it's promulgating these messages that we really shouldn't be giving any oxygen at all."
Bridgette Thorold, country director of child services non-profit ChildFund PNG, said even if there were enough vaccines for PNG's 10 million people, many would refuse due to misinformation.
To reassure citizens about vaccines, health minister Wong, Prime Minister James Marape and several other PNG officials took the AstraZeneca shot this week.
PNG'S VACCINE SUPPLY
While PNG will not make vaccination mandatory, it should have enough shots in the next three or four months for everyone who wants to be vaccinated, Wong said.
PNG, which gained independence from Australia in 1975, has so far received 8,000 vaccine doses from Australia's supply.
India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, has promised another 70,000 doses, but deliveries could be delayed as it has since has put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca shot to meet domestic demand.
China has committed 200,000 doses for its citizens in PNG.
PNG also expects 588,000 doses by June under the COVAX initiative to help poorer countries, but there are doubts about supplies given export curbs by producing countries.
PNG had recorded 6,112 cases and 60 deaths by Wednesday. Australia says that tally vastly underestimates the extent of the crisis as the island does not do mass testing.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Himani Sarkar)