PNG struggling to come to terms with HIV/AIDS epidemic



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While the rest of the world acknowledged World AIDS Day this week in a number of ways, Papua New Guinea (PNG) appears to be struggling to come to terms with the HIV/AIDS epidemic which threatens the population.

Though PNG has the highest prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the South Pacific, the Government has cut funding for next year’s budget to fight the virus which has led to criticism and calls from some members of parliament for a greater understanding and awareness of HIV/AIDS.

PNG’s 2009 AIDS budget has been reportedly cut from 101.3 million kina ($A59 million) this year to 76.2 million kina ($A44 million).

Jamie Maxtone-Graham who is in charge of the Government’s response to the epidemic says HIV/AIDS should be the government’s number one priority because at the moment, there’s no real grasp of understanding the problem.

According to AusAid if more is not done to combat the spread of the virus by 2025, more than 70% of all PNG hospital beds will be taken by HIV/AIDS patients.

In PNG an estimated 150,000 people have the disease and experts say the country faces real challenges in fighting the disease; they fear by 2025 more than 500,000 people will be living with HIV/AIDS.

AusAID estimates two per cent of PNG’s population is infected with HIV/AIDS, affecting between 40,000 to 60,000 people, the highest in the Pacific region.

Australia will give PNG $100 million to tackle AIDS through a five year program that started in January last year but the depreciation of the Australian dollar means that package is now worth 30% less.

The Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on HIV/AIDS Jamie Maxtone-Graham says the cuts are a concern and will result in many non-government-organizations and other bodies losing their workers.

Mr Maxtone-Graham says the move contradicts the Government’s current Medium Term Development Strategy and would have a major impact on the implementation of HIV/AIDS programs in the country.

Papua New Guinea, the largest developing country in the Pacific, is a low-income country with more than 600 islands and a population of approximately 6 million people (2005).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says close to 87% of the population live in widely scattered rural communities which are often difficult to access and many villages can only be reached on foot - most travel between provinces is by air.

The country has 19 provinces and 89 districts with large sociocultural differences between and within provinces - there are around 800 languages spoken and the official languages are English, Pidgin and Motu.

The WHO says living standards for a significant number of Papua New Guineans have declined since 1990 and the country’s health status is the lowest in the Pacific region with communicable diseases, including malaria and tuberculosis, the major cause of disease and death and PNG now has an epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

Perceptions of illness and health in PNG present major challenges and there is a lack of awareness of both health-promoting and risk-related behaviour.

Most of the health services in Papua New Guinea are provided by the Government and church medical services and rely on help from overseas organisations. The WHO says in recent years, rural health services have deteriorated significantly because of the closing down of many rural health facilities, the shortage of medical doctors, nurses and community health workers and a persistent and serious law-and-order problem.

The national Government apparently aims to improve the health of all Papua New Guineans through the development of a health system that is responsive, effective, affordable, acceptable and accessible to the majority of the population, to which it says it is strongly committed.

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