HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea Could Mirror African Epidemic, U.N. Says
HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea could reflect the situation in Africa because new cases are increasing and more than 75% of people living with the virus are unable to access antiretroviral drugs, the United Nations said recently, Bloomberg reports. "It could very much become an Africa-type situation if the required services are not in place," Tim Rwabuhemba, UNAIDS Papua New Guinea coordinator, said, adding, "There is an urgent need for more HIV services across the board here."
Papua New Guinea accounts for 90% of the Pacific region's HIV cases and is one of four Asia-Pacific countries with an epidemic, according to the United Nations. In addition, more than 500,000 people in the country will be HIV-positive by 2025 -- resulting in a 13% decrease in the available workforce and a 1.3% decrease in Papua New Guinea's $15 billion economy, according to the Australian development agency AusAID. HIV cases in the country have been increasing at a rate of 30% annually since 1997, according to the United Nations. Heterosexual sex is the primary mode of transmission, according to Rwabuhemba.
New cases often are spread in areas surrounding mining and logging sites, as well as along transportation routes, according to Paul Barker, director of the Institute of National Affairs. "People have multiple wives, particularly in the highlands," he said, adding, "I knew of one man in a very remote location with 60, so that contributes. There's a strong social stigma, and while people's attitudes have started to change, it's been slow, especially in rural areas."
About 37% of Papua New Guinea's population lives under the poverty line, and 80% of people living in urban areas are unemployed, according to Bloomberg. In addition, the inaccessibility of some regions in the country and a shortage of diagnostic equipment and antiretrovirals have contributed to the situation. Almost 2% of the population is living with the virus, and new cases are increasing primarily in rural areas, according to Rwabuhemba. "Stigma and discrimination is an issue as education programs, particularly in the highlands, haven't made the impact we would desire," he said, adding, "People have not come to terms with this situation, and there is an irrational fear." There have been recent allegations that HIV-positive people in Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands were buried alive, Bloomberg reports. "That was a very big slap for us when we saw it on the front page of the newspaper, a great shock," Rwabuhemba said, adding, "We cannot substantiate it."
Tensions between tribes and a lack of infrastructure in the Southern Highlands also have hindered HIV/AIDS services, the government has said. "Without knowledge of what HIV is and the impact of it, people in the area certainly would show strong fear," Health Minister Michael Ogio said, adding, "The stigma and discrimination which may result in families neglecting people living with HIV/AIDS in the area still has to be addressed more aggressively" (O'Brien, Bloomberg, 8/31).