A princess and a rugby royal are working to counter vaccine misinformation in the Pacific

Will Genia is one of Papua New Guinea's most idolised sports stars, but off the footy field he is turning his attention to a different cause. 

The young rugby union champion is among a group of influential Pacific Islanders using their platforms to promote public health messages relating to COVID-19. 

Genia says he feels compelled to speak up in attempt to combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, which is rife across the region. 

Papua New Guinea's health system is buckling under pressure as the Delta stain spreads throughout the country and social media has been blamed for contributing to vaccine hesitancy.

Will Genia makes a break for the Wallabies against Italy
Genia wants people in PNG to have access to accurate information, in order to make informed decisions about COVID-19 vaccines. (AAP: Dan Peled)

"There's a lot of hesitation and apprehension towards the [COVID-19] vaccine because there's not the right information out there," Genia told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

"People don't have access to TVs, they don't have access to written materials, or the radio, and a lot of the information gets passed on to each other second-hand, or through social media. 

"And I think we all know that social media has sort of created a platform where everybody's an expert on everything." 

Genia has played for the Australian Wallabies, the Queensland Reds and is currently signed with a Japanese team, the Kintetsu Liners. 

He is also a UNICEF Australia ambassador, and recently released a Facebook video sharing his thoughts about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"I do think the best way we can protect ourselves [and] our loved ones, is to get vaccinated," he says in the clip, which has had more than 27,000 views.

For Genia, it is an issue that is also close to home. 

"My mum had COVID, my brother had COVID, I've had cousins and friends [who've] passed away because of the disease," he said.  

"I mean, it's heartbreaking." 

Rugby player Will Genia signing "V" for "vaccinated"
Rugby player Will Genia signing "V" for "vaccinated".(Supplied: UNICEF Australia)

PNG health services struggle to cope with Delta outbreakA woman holds a needle near a man's arm. Both are wearing surgical masks.

COVID-19 cases are surging across Papua New Guinea, prompting a renewed focus on increasing the country's vaccination rate, which is the lowest in the region. 

Read more

More than eight months into the vaccine rollout, only about 4 per cent of the eligible population in PNG have had the jab. 

In September, PNG gave away 30,000 vaccine doses to Vietnam because there was not enough demand. 

Now PNG is experiencing a surge in critical cases of mostly unvaccinated citizens. 

Genia wants people to have access to accurate information in order to make informed choices about their health.

"I think if you do that, more often than not, you find that people will take the vaccine," he said.

'We only have one life'

While PNG may be experiencing the largest COVID outbreak, vaccine hesitancy is an issue across many Pacific communities.

Tongan royals, Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala and HRH Princess Angelika Latufuipeka Tuku'aho — who is also the High Commissioner of Tonga to Australia — featured in a Facebook video encouraging vaccination, including in Australia's Tongan community.

"We would like to remind our communities at this difficult time that we are here for you and that we will overcome these challenges together," Princess Latufuipeka says in the video.

"We encourage you, your families and our communities to do what is best for us all and to get vaccinated.

"Getting your COVID-19 vaccination will give you up to about 90 per cent protection against hospitalisation from COVID-19 and reduces your risk of spreading the virus to others.

"Kāinga Tonga we only have one life, get vaccinated."

Tongan Princess Latufuipeka Tuku'aho mid-speech.
Princess Latufuipeka Tuku'aho urged the Tongan community to get vaccinated.(Supplied: Tonga Mission Canberra)

Lady Roslyn Morauta, the wife of former PNG prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta and a board member for Pacific Friends of Global Health, says getting this message out over the roar of misinformation remains a major challenge. 

"My worry is that the pro-vaccination voices have not been loud enough," Lady Morauta said.

The organisation wants the Australian government to support PNG in designing a targeted COVID information strategy. 

A woman with short grey hair smiles.
Lady Roslyn Morauta wants to see "a more active" pro-vaccine champaign in PNG.(Supplied: Ther Global Fund)

"We just have to have a much more active campaign of other respected people like church leaders, and private sector leaders, community leaders, women's leaders, and politicians as well," she said.

"We have to have a concerted campaign that's very public."

While some public figures are using their platforms to promote vaccinations, others are not. 

Emmanuel Narokobi is a social media and marking consultant in PNG and says he is frustrated to see some high-profile politicians, singers and even doctors spreading anti-vaccination messages. 

"It's a big concern, because obviously we want to trust our doctors, but when … there's a split between the opinions of doctors, that already creates an issue in terms of everyone wondering what's going on," he said.

Mr Narokobi believes the best way to combat vaccine misinformation is by engaging with local communities in person. 

He said face-to-face "town hall-type community gathering discussions" would be more effective than putting messages on media platforms, but it was about finding the right approach. 

"Not so much putting them down and shouting down to them, but giving them a space where they can sort of ask questions and be answered." 

A woman smiles for a professional headshot.
Ms Dalhousie says young people are among the most resistant.

That has been the approach of Aukland-based Pasifika health service, The Fono, which has teamed up with local Instagram influencers to encourage vaccinations. 

The organisation's chief operating officer Sally Dalhousie says so far it has been a success. 

"It's particularly our younger people who are the most resistant and so they respond best with their own," Ms Dalhousie said.

"And it's easier if we just have a number of people who are out there like a little army, bringing people in [for] vaccination wherever that is the best place for them."

For rugby superstar Genia, his hope for all Pacific Islanders is the same. 

"My hope is that there's more conversation created around it, but in a positive sense, in a space where it's safe to be able to express what it is you feel as an individual and then also hear the information." 

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