Thursday December 1, 2005
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Papua New Guinea could rival the catastrophic situations in the very worst affected countries in Africa unless immediate and large-scale actions are taken by the international community to counter the threat. This is the stark warning from Australian Red Cross CEO Robert Tickner on the occasion of World Aids Day 2005 (Thursday 1 December, 2005).
According to the UN and AusAID, HIV prevalence in PNG is now somewhere between 0.6 and 2 per cent of the adult population, with the number of people infected each year rising by between 15 - 30 per cent since 1997.
Even more worrying is the similarity of sexual behaviour patterns in PNG and Sub-Saharan Africa, a similarity that suggests the epidemic has the potential to reach comparable levels. The UN estimates that 7.4 per cent of the adult population of Sub-Saharan Africa - 25.4 million people - are living with HIV.
'Under an absolute worst case scenario, experts warn that an un-fettered epidemic in PNG could claim up to 120,000 lives per year,' said Mr Tickner. 'Such a scenario would have catastrophic human and economic ramifications on the country, and on the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.'
'The epidemic is currently driven by commercial and casual sex and is heterosexual in nature,' explains Elden Chamberlain, Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS advisor. 'This makes it all the more difficult to contain as it is not just isolated groups of people who are most vulnerable to infection.'
According to Mr Chamberlain, reports by the UN indicate that people in their late teens in PNG have a high level of sexual activity and of alcohol and drug use. Though they show some awareness of HIV and AIDS, they often struggle to access information on prevention or related services.
If rates of infection continue to increase, he says, PNG's workforce could be reduced by a staggering 34 per cent by 2020, with measures of economic welfare falling between 12 and 48 per cent during that period. In addition, a generalised epidemic could lead to large scale migrations as people return to rural areas for communal support, or cross borders in an attempt to escape economic deprivation, an event that could strain regional resources.
'Many see HIV/AIDS as a Sub-Saharan African problem, something of concern, but removed from our own experiences. But the truth of the matter is that HIV/AIDS presents a truly global humanitarian challenge, and it affects all of us,' said Mr Chamberlain.
The Australian Government has already reacted by dedicating significant funds to tackle the issue. But the scale and speed of the spread of infection in PNG is such that an even larger and more concerted effort is urgently needed to save the country from the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS.
Australian Red Cross has years of experience in HIV/AIDS education and supports programs in some 10 countries across Asia and the Pacific, including PNG.
To support the work of Australian Red Cross in the Asia/Pacific region, you can make a donation to the Red Cross Asia/Pacific HIV/AIDS Appeal:
- Visit www.redcross.org.au to make a secure online donation
- Call 1800 811 700 toll free
- Send a cheque to GPO Box 9949 marked 'Asia/Pacific HIV/AIDS Appeal' in your capital city