Tuesday, July 11, 2006

HIV and sexual promiscuity in the Pacific

Joel Gibson:

THE Pacific is ripe for an HIV epidemic like the one Africa is now fighting unless religious governments face up to the sexual promiscuity of their peoples, international health agencies say.

"Papua New Guinea is where many countries in Africa were five to 10 years ago," said Stuart Watson, the program director for UNAIDS Pacific. "Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati and some parts of the Federated States of Micronesia are where PNG was five to 10 years ago and heading in the same direction."

But most governments in the Pacific were "sticking their heads in the sand" and "not allocating adequate resources" to stem the epidemic, he said. Fiji, the South Pacific's largest nation, had 205 reported HIV cases in February this year and an official infection rate of below 1 per cent, but the Ministry of Health estimates that is about one-third of actual cases.

The number has doubled since 2002 and health officials are expecting more than 10 new cases to be confirmed in coming days.

The rising rates of other sexually transmitted infections and risky sexual behaviour have created "a ripe scenario for the spread of HIV in the Pacific", said a report last month by the World Health Organisation and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

The survey of 4305 people in six countries found chlamydia rates as high as 29 per cent, limited knowledge of how HIV is transmitted, and the "extreme prevalence" of casual and unsafe sex among the young.

New Zealand's Family Planning Association is even blaming Pacific island holidays for an increase in that country's syphilis rates. "Auckland sexual health clinic statistics show 47.5 per cent of people who were testing positive for syphilis indicated they'd picked it up while travelling, and Fiji was a popular destination," the city's health promotion director, Frances Bird, told Fijilive.com.

As a new five-year HIV/AIDS strategy was negotiated this week, a women's group sought to have references to prostitution and homosexuality, both of which are illegal in Fiji, struck from the document. Mr Watson said such attitudes were common and counterproductive.

"The only successful initiatives to turn around the epidemic have been programs that actively and aggressively supported the use of condoms," he said.

"[The latest statistics] should serve as a huge red flag for the governments in the Pacific. They need to get real and stop believing their good Christian values will keep them safe. If that was the case, they wouldn't have high STI rates and high numbers of unwanted teenage pregnancies."

Out Of The HIV Closet

Asia Pacific Countries at Risk of HIV Epidemic Among IDUs, UNAIDS Official Says

HIV/AIDS among Asians and Pacific Islanders

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