AIDS epidemic taking hold in Papua New Guinea

Posted: 29 September 2006

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and its population of just under six million is in the grip of an HIV and AIDS epidemic, which could see a million cases by 2015, says the World Health Organisation.

The Health Minister, Peter Barter shocked a recent meeting of world health officials by saying that infection rates had reached double digits in some remote parts of the country.

With nearly 2 per cent of the population now believed to be living with HIV and AIDS, experts fear Papua New Guinea is heading for a crisis similar to that in sub-Saharan Africa.

The country's government was for a long time accused of lacking the political will to do anything about infection rates that were rising at an alarming 30 per cent a year.

Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare has brought the issue under his remit and the government is working with agencies in the country on a coordinated approach to tackle the crisis, he said.

But tackling the problem in a country such as PNG is "very difficult", he admitted.

"We have about 800 different cultures and languages, and trying to translate the message in a society that is only 34 per cent literate is a monumental task."

Unprotected sex

HIV is spread largely through heterosexual sex in Papua New Guinea, one of Asia's poorest countries. Unprotected sex, both paid-for and casual, is reported to be widespread. The problem is particularly prevalent around the capital Port Moresby and other towns, major transport routes as well as mines and plantations.

"Women at most risk, those whose partners have multiple wives or who travel a lot, often say they have no control over the use of condoms and cannot refuse sex," Amnesty International recently said.

Others cite cultural beliefs as an obstacle. Initially many blamed HIV on witchcraft and sorcery and it will take time to break down those ideas. On a practical level, experts say the country's health care infrastructure and resources are not adequate to cope with such an epidemic.

Hospital pathology reports from two areas of central Enga province suggested infection rates could even have reached 30 per cent in isolated cases, said Barter. One health ministry study found that of 700 workers, both Papua New Guineans and foreigners, who were tested at a gold mine in Enga, 70 had HIV.

Dr Nicholas Mann says those results are very much a one-off.

"This is an isolated town where there is economic activity and many males, who take sex workers," he said.

But the World Health Organisation has warned that the number of infections in Papua New Guinea could reach one million by 2015, unless decisive action is taken.

"Papua New Guinea is very committed now and is setting ambitious targets for universal access," said Dr Bernard Fabre-Teste, WHO adviser for Asia-Pacific region.

These targets cover the development of testing and counselling services; the creation of different types of prevention programmes; strengthening the system of treatment and care; and developing more accurate and strategic information.

Source: BBC News/IPPF 28th September 2006

Note:The abstinence initiative spearheaded by George Bush has been hailed by Sir Bob Geldof as a highly effective means of combating the spread of AIDS in Africa.

The Live Aid founder and anti-poverty campaigner said the controversial Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programme gave women a weapon "for protecting their health".

The Bush administration launched the $15 billion PEPFAR fund in 2003. It has been criticised for diverting a third of the funds to faith based groups which preach abstinence. Opponents protest that this smacks of Christian fundamentalism and endangers lives by failing to place sufficient emphasis on condoms.

Sir Bob told delegates at the Labour Party Conference that AIDS had stabilised in Africa, partly because of condom distribution.

PEPFAR, which is Bush's almost personal response to the Global Fund, is a highly effective AIDS combatant mechanism. It works. It's uncomfortable for people to speak these unspoken truths but a lot of that stuff is working. In general in rural Africa women have no power. They also cannot refuse sexual favours.

He went on to say:

What this if you like fundamental Christian agenda - and believe me I'm an atheist so I'm not going along with that - what it has done is I've seen marked in chalk on these rural huts, safe sex, fidelity. It's giving women a weapon they can use.''

Source:Press Association reported in Push Journal 28th September

Related link:

Geldof praises US AIDS plan