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PNG passes 10,000 infections as COVID-19 spreads beyond the capital

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Newly constructed apartment blocks are seen behind the stilt house village called Hanuabada, located in Port Moresby Harbour in Papua New Guinea

(Fixes grammar in par 8)

SYDNEY (Reuters) -The number of coronavirus infections in Papua New Guinea (PNG) rose past 10,000 on Wednesday, an alarming milestone for the Pacific country as health officials worry that its fragile health system is at risk of being overwhelmed.

PNG logged 245 new cases in the 24 hours to midday on Tuesday, continuing a run of daily increases of more than 200, putting its total at 10,197, although its tally of reported deaths from the coronavirus was steady at 91.

In a departure from previous updates that showed most new cases near the capital, Port Moresby, the COVID-19 National Pandemic Response said the new infections occurred in 17 of the country's 22 provinces, implying a broader spread.

As PNG grapples with the rise in infections it also faces delays to its vaccination programme, which relies on supplies from the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme.

PNG, which has a population of about 9 million, has started a modest vaccination programme using a small number of doses sent by Australia with orders in place for more under the COVAX programme aimed at inoculating countries in need.

"Our battle with the surging COVID-19 outbreak is at a critical stage and I urge every citizen to strictly comply with measures," the pandemic response controller, Police Commissioner David Manning, said in a statement.

As elsewhere, PNG has imposed restrictions on movement and asked people to observe hygiene practices like hand-washing, wearing masks and social distancing.

But the outbreak, which began in recent weeks, has prompted warnings from the World Health Organization as well as from neighbouring Australia of suspected under-reporting of infection rates.

"There is widespread and sustained community transmission," Pamela Toliman, senior research fellow at the PNG Institute of Medical Research, told a virtual conference.

"It's very challenging when, on the streets, people who know there is community transmission are not wearing masks and not socially distancing."

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham in SydneyEditing by Robert Birsel)