Waking up finally to the HIV and AIDS threat
MADANG, PNG - 5 December 2007
Waking up finally to the HIV and AIDS threat
By Kevin Pamba, Inter-Press Service
MADANG, Papua New Guinea Dec 5, 2007 (IPS) - When the new government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) set up in August a separate ministry devoted to containing HIV and AIDS in this Pacific Island country, it reflected the enormity of the threat to its six million people.
The government also increased funding for the fight against HIV and AIDS in its 2008 national budget passed on Nov. 20 from 12 million Kina (3.7 million US dollars) in 2007 to 15 million kina (4.6 million dollars).
Yet, this response is being seen as coming too little too late. Experts have been warning PNG of a sub-Saharan Africa-like AIDS epidemic for a decade now, but the government and the public took little notice.
According to the National AIDS Council’s ‘2007 Estimation Report’, released in August, as of December 2006 there were 4,017 people who tested HIV positive, a 30 percent increase from 2005, bringing the cumulative number of diagnosed cases to 18,484.
The council also reported that "the revised estimates indicate that the national HIV prevalence is 1.28 percent among adults aged 15-49 years.’’
Many believe that PNG should be doing far more if it is to win the war against HIV and AIDS. For a start it could stop marginalising people already living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHAs) says Joe Egu, a well-known campaigner in the country.
Egu, who has been living with HIV since 2001, told IPS in an interview that although money and resources have been used for awareness campaigns by a plethora of organisations including the government over the last ten years, HIV had continued to spread.
"The real people who will stop HIV and AIDS from spreading are those living with the virus," said Egu, who traverses the country regularly on speaking and training tours sponsored by the PNG department of health and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
He said PLWHAs are the key to prevent further spread of the virus because once the environment is made conducive for them to come out and be accepted by PNG society, they will stop infecting others.
Egu said fellow HIV positive people he talks with feel disillusioned and say that the government and its partners focus too much on public awareness and have little concern for them so they carry on spreading the virus "underground."
PNG’s peak medical research body, the PNG Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR), admitted to this national ignorance recently. "Like many countries, PNG was slow to realise the enormity of what HIV was to mean for its citizens and the development of it as a country," the PNGIMR stated in its response to a report by an Australian think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, on the status of HIV and AIDS in PNG.
The PNGIMR said the country has realised the extent of the impact of the epidemic and is responding. "After coming to grips with the epidemic's potential, the government has been working in partnership with non-government organisations, aid agencies and faith-based organisations.’’
"Previously the response was limited by a lack of adequate data and research." The PNGIMR claimed that: "Today however, there is an emerging wealth of excellent works which are guiding the government and its partnerships to tailor an HIV response that is specific to PNG's epidemic and not those of any other. As this work has become available, the political (will) has in turn grown and strengthened."
The initiatives of the government are part of a multi-sectoral response PNG is taking against a disease whose spread is now categorised as "generalised" and not confined to the high-risk groups, such as sex workers and homosexuals.
The plight of PNG has attracted attention from the Clinton Foundation which has begun assisting it with the procurement and supply of anti-retroviral drugs. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton who was in PNG earlier in the year, to sign a supply agreement, urged people in this country to get tested to know their HIV status and help prevent its spread.
Testing has been a major obstacle in gauging the exact number of people infected, with only about 18,484 people officially tested and on record as infected, while experts say the figure could be far higher. Australia's aid agency AusAID, a major player in the fight against HIV/AIDS which contributes 90 percent of the international funding, says PNG has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS infection in the Pacific.
UNAIDS (the U.N. joint-programme) says PNG is the fourth country in the Asia-Pacific region, "after Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) to be classified as having a generalised HIV epidemic."
The government has tasked the new minister responsible for AIDS, Sasa Zibe, and his vice-minister Yawa Silupa, to oversee the various multi-sector response programmes and advise the government on how it should continue to address this pandemic.
The fact that UNAIDS says the main mode of transmission is heterosexual, with most of the cases occurring between the ages of 20 and 40 years, is a matter of concern because this is a population bracket the PNG government and businesses depend on as prime workforce.
The fear of the government and the private sector is based on the expert opinion that if HIV/AIDS spread continues at the present rate among the prime population group, the cream of the economically productive people will be decimated.
"There is an urgent need to build leadership on AIDS at every level of society in PNG in order to intensify the national response to the epidemic," says UNAIDS. ‘’Parliamentarians and community, traditional, faith-based and business leaders need to be effectively mobilised and utilised for the AIDS response in 2007."
But the battle has only just begun for a country that the U.N. downgraded to the status of ‘least developing’ nation in 2006 because of continuously falling socio-economic indicators. The 2007 Human Development Index of the U.N. Development programme (UNDP) ranks PNG 145th out 177 countries.
Unified response against HIV/AIDS is called for, say experts, in a nation with under half of its population literate, poor penetration of modern education, poor or absent socio-economic infrastructure in outlying areas where the majority live and high unemployment and poverty, say experts.