As HIV/AIDS infection rates increase across the Pacific Islands region, experts say local governments and aid organisations need to work together to stem an epidemic.
As of 2007 an estimated 74,000 people were living with HIV/AIDS in Oceania. Infection rates in the region are still relatively low compared to world figures and experts say this offers a window of opportunity for swift preventative action.
While most of the epidemics in the region are small, the UN says that the annual number of new HIV diagnoses in Papua New Guinea (PNG) doubled between 2002 and 2006.
Located just north of Australia, PNG has a population of six million and accounts for approximately 80 per cent of all HIV/AIDS infections in the Pacific Islands region. Around 40 per cent of PNG’s population lives on less than $US1 a day.
It is projected that over half a million Papua New Guineans will be living with HIV/AIDS by 2025. Prevalence among urban adults aged 15 to 49 may rise to over 20 per cent, having devastating effects on the developing economy.
“One problem is the number of sexual partners that people have in PNG. There is some similarity here with a number of southern African countries where HIV infection rates are as high as 15 per cent,” said Dr Trevor Cullen, Professor of Communications at Edith Cowan University.
Women’s rights and gender relations are recognised as key factors in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS and in PNG, twice as many women are infected with HIV than men in the 15 to 29 year age group. Extramarital relationships of husbands are believed to be the key factor in the spread of HIV among married women.
“There still exist traditional taboos that prevent an open discussion of sexual matters,” Dr Cullen said.
The invisibility of HIV and STI transmitting behaviours, as well as the reluctance of church and government officials to openly discuss sexual issues, have been cited as barriers to effectively combating HIV/AIDS in the Pacific.
“Either through ignorance of the impending reality or fear of negative publicity, [Pacific governments] were unable to galvanise public support.
“For a long time, it was left to outsiders – namely, international health organisations like UNAIDS, WHO and NGOs – to do their best,” Dr Cullen explained.
The Government of PNG’s National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS for 2004–2008 failed to reach its goal of reducing HIV prevalence to below 1 per cent by 2008. Health services for the care of HIV/AIDS infected people remains almost nonexistent. The epidemic could eventually lead to a mass migration into countries such as Australia where medical treatment is available for the affluent.
Recently, schools in PNG and nearby Melanesia have begun incorporating HIV and AIDS education into their curricula. AusAID has cited the need for a strengthened and co-ordinated response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic as one of the key goals of the 2006–2010 Papua New Guinea – Australia Development Co-operation Strategy.
A new network launched by the Commonwealth Foundation and supported by NZAID also aims to help fight the epidemic. Last month, the Pan Commonwealth Civil Society network on HIV and AIDS in the Pacific met in the Cook Islands to foster working partnerships between governments and non-governmental organisations, aiming to create a united front against the spread of HIV/AIDS.