In-country technical assistance on immunisation in Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands is one of 18 Indo-Pacific countries supported under the Australian Expert Technical Assistance Program for Regional COVID-19 Vaccine Access: Policy, Planning and Implementation (AETAP-PPI) – an initiative funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) – for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations and the strengthening of routine immunisation programs.
The Solomon Islands Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MHMS) became aware of the AETAP-PPI and requested the in-country assistance of a technical expert on immunisation to support its national immunisation program.
In response, Dr Padmasiri (‘Pad’) Eswara Aratchige, Global Health Senior Technical Officer at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS),was deployed to Solomon Islands to support immunisation services delivery in the country.
Pad arrived in Honiara, Solomon Islands in March 2022 and was based there until December 2022. The deployment occurred during a uniquely challenging period, with the country – and the world in general – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic significantly disrupted the routine immunisation program in Solomon Islands, while the day-to-day demand for the continued rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been overwhelming.
Pad provided technical assistance to the national Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI), in close collaboration with the MHMS, and was accepted as a member of the EPI Technical Working Group (TWG), the national body dealing with EPI policy and technical matters.
Many of the outputs attributable to the in-country technical support resulted from the work done through the TWG,in collaboration with its members. Key outputs included:
- updating of the national immunisation policy
- development of COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for healthcare workers
- assisting in the training of healthcare workers on COVID-19 vaccination in all 10 provinces/administrative areas
- responding to vaccine disinformation
- assisting in the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines
- successful applications for a range of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance funding support.
Mr Patrick (‘Paddy’) Cashman replaced Pad to provide in-country assistance from May 2023. Since then, stakeholder relationships developed through earlier AETAP-PPI in-country support have been maintained through handover of responsibilities and EPI TWG membership.
Paddy’s chief focus is health systems strengthening for routine immunisations, in the wake of the disruptions of the pandemic and a fall in childhood immunisation rates.
Due to low measles vaccine coverage over the past five years, the number of children susceptible to measles infection in Solomon Islands increased to more than one birth cohort. With this in mind, the MHMS conducted a Measles Rubella Supplementary Immunisation Activity in September 2023. Paddy contributed training and technical support to this activity, including in remote provinces.
Paddy is also supporting the MHMS in improving vaccine coverage and service delivery under three Gavi-funded projects: Targeted Country Assistance, the Equity Accelerator Fund and COVID-19 Delivery Support.
Other stakeholders have included the health team of the Australian High Commission; in-country office staff members of the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank, PATH and World Vision; and units of the MHMS, such as the Health Promotion Unit.