PAPUA NEW GUINEA HIV-TB EPIDEMIC LOOMS, EXPERT SAYS

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (November 27, 1998 - The National)---Papua New Guinea is on the verge of a combined HIV-tuberculosis epidemic "of African proportions" and Australia is its only hope of mitigating the disaster, a regional tuberculosis expert said in Bangkok, Thailand, this week.

However, Michael Levy, Director of the Community Health and Anti-Tuberculosis Association said Monday that Australia was reluctant to fund anti-tuberculosis programs because of the PNG Government's corruption and instability, according to a report in The Australian newspaper.

The newspaper said the World Health Organization on Monday identified PNG as one of seven Asia-Pacific hot spots where co-epidemics of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis had reached crisis levels.

But the Sydney-based Dr. Levy said that even in a region the WHO now described as the epicenter of a global tuberculosis emergency, "PNG stands alone" in the severity of its health crisis, The Australian reported.

"PNG is facing a combined HIV-tuberculosis epidemic that I would estimate is of African proportions," said Dr Levy, who led a WHO tuberculosis study team to PNG in late 1997 and has been associated with two other recent investigations, the newspaper said.

"That means it is at the level where population and economic estimates will have to be phased down in the medium to long term because of these diseases," he said.

The newspaper reported that the wildfire spread of HIV/AIDS through Africa and Asia has been the single greatest factor in the resurgence of tuberculosis.

Although the tuberculosis bacillus is estimated to infect one in every three people, healthy immune systems prevent the disease developing in most people. Weakened immune systems allow tuberculosis to flare among late-stage AIDS sufferers, who then infect healthy people, the newspaper reported.

It said new estimates presented on Monday showed HIV incidence in PNG last year as two per 1,000 adults and seven per 1,000 for tuberculosis. These proportions are still well below those in Cambodia, which now records the worst incidence rate after East Africa.

However, Dr. Levy said Port Moresby authorities had been the slowest and least effective in the region to deal with the co-epidemic and the available statistics "are so shaky they are almost not worth quoting in terms of precision."

"But even so, they are already at the high end of the range for both diseases," Dr. Levy said.

The inadequacy of the PNG response -- only a single anti-tuberculosis pilot project exists in the country -- meant Australian aid and expertise were the country's only hope, he said. However, Dr. Levy believes the Australian aid agency, AusAID, is reluctant to commit to any new medical projects because of the Skate Government's corruption and unreliability, and the overall political and social instability.

"Nobody cares about PNG except Australia," he said. "PNG looks to Australia for support which isn't going to come from any other direction," Dr. Levy said.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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