Friday, September 29, 2006

Papua New Guinea and its population of just under six million is in the grip of an HIV/AIDS epidemic

Penny Spiller:

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% 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% a year.

But now it is "taking the bull by the horns", Secretary for Health, Dr Nicholas Mann, told the BBC.

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% literate is a monumental task."

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.

But aid agencies point to a high level of violence towards women in the country as fuelling the epidemic.

"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.

Deep-seated traditional and cultural belief systems are another factor, Dr Mann says.

"Firstly, people blamed it on witchcraft and sorcery," he said, admitting: "It will take some time and, unfortunately, loss of life before the message catches on."

On a practical level, experts say the country's health care infrastructure and resources are not adequate to cope with such an epidemic.

HIV/AIDS – a time-bomb waiting to explode

Papua New Guinea: Culture and resources no excuse for violence against women

Health minister: Up to 30 percent have HIV infection in remote Papua-New Guinea

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