FIRST PACIFIC REGIONAL HIV/AIDS AND STD CONFERENCE OPENS AT NADI

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By Lisa Williams

NADI, Fiji Islands (February 23, 1999 - Pacific Islands News Association)---Fiji's first lady, Adi Lady Lalabalavu Mara, this morning welcomed some 200 delegates from across the Pacific region to the first Pacific regional HIV/AIDS and STD conference.

"The time has long passed when we can close our eyes and say 'It won't happen to us,'" Mara said of the growing numbers of people infected by HIV/AIDS in the region, "It is happening to us and we must unite in our efforts to prevent further infection, and to offer support and compassion to those who are infected."

Mara is one of many prominent Pacific Islands women supporting the education awareness efforts of HIV/AIDS workers in the region.

In her opening address to the three-day meeting, she said strategies in the islands dealing with HIV are often very low on the list of national development and health priorities.

"We must keep stressing that HIV and AIDS are not just a health issue, that this virus affects all sectors of the community and that it is therefore the responsibility of the community as a whole to assist in efforts to develop and deliver appropriate responses."

Mara said she is greatly concerned about the effects of HIV/AIDS and STD's for the young people of the Pacific, having been told that of all new HIV infections, at least 50% are those under 25 years of age.

"Pacific Islands populations have a high proportion of young people. These young people are our future," said Mara. "We must listen to what young people have to say and work together with youth to provide them with the means to take the future into their hands with knowledge, confidence and support."

She is also happy to see issues relating to women and families living with HIV/AIDS on the conference program, saying strategies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of women to HIV infection are badly needed.

"I see my role in HIV/AIDS and STD education as one of advocacy," Mara told the conference of her leading role in raising awareness of what is still a 'taboo' topic in many Pacific Island societies. "I am in a perfect position to ensure that issues remain on the country's agenda."

The first day of meetings featured four workshop areas running simultaneously to cope with the large numbers and diverse interests of the forum participants. Among the meetings today were an update on regional initiatives, youth work, educational approaches to HIV/AIDS and care and support workshops.

The meeting is sponsored by the Australian, British and Canadian governments and up to six United Nations agencies.

It's being coordinated by the South Pacific Community using resources and personnel from Noumea and Suva.

MORE OPEN DEBATE NEEDED ON HIV/AIDS, CONFERENCE TOLD

By Lisa Williams

NADI, Fiji Islands (February 23, 1999 - Pacific Islands News Association)---Pacific Islands countries need to open up and acknowledge the reality of HIV/AIDS, the Pacific HIV/AIDS and STD conference at Nadi was told today.

Australian health promotion worker and former UNAIDS Country Support Director Dr. Rob Moodie said the most important step towards a successful response to the HIV/AIDS problem is acknowledging that the virus exists.

Moodie said the most effective ways to combat the spread of HIV need open and honest government to acknowledge the problem, and the political will to deal with issues of sex, drugs and discrimination.

"If you have social or behavioral skeletons in your national closet, it is imperative to let them out," Moodie said. The admission also comes with the reality of other STD's, he stressed, and talking openly and honestly of the behavioral, social, cultural and economic causes of these diseases. "We must acknowledge that HIV is with us, it is our problem, it is in the room with us, it is not just a problem of others,"

Moodie told some 200 delegates to the first Pacific regional HIV/AIDS and STD conference, which opened today at the Tanoa Hotel, Nadi, that "Historically people in the Pacific, as in every country, have used excuses of tradition, culture and religion as reasons to ignore the issue of HIV/AIDS. Traditional practices that facilitate the spread of HIV must not be allowed to jeopardize lives," he said.

Moodie told the many Pacific Islands delegates that it is important to acknowledge "the reality of our social and sexual behaviors in a non-judgmental way" and to "encourage HIV positive people to be open about their status so we can give a human face to the epidemic. We should encourage those like me who have been at risk of HIV to acknowledge the real world of our behaviors, risks and fears."

Moodie paid tribute to one of the delegates attending the conference, Mairie Bopp, who declared she was HIV-positive to her journalist colleagues during the regional Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) convention in Tahiti last year.

He said her coming out has changed the way many journalists cover the issues of HIV/AIDS and made them more sensitive to the subject matter rather than reinforcing social prejudice about the disease.

"It is very encouraging to note that in the Pacific community leaders such as Samoa's Reverend Lotu Uele are playing a vital role in tackling the HIV/AIDS," Moodie said. He also congratulated Reverend Valamotu Palu of the Pacific Conference of Churches for her stance in asking member churches to support the annual candlelight ceremony commemorating those who have died from HIV/AIDS and those still living with the disease.

Moodie also recognized Suva's STD Peer Education project where young people, sex workers, women, prisoners and other groups talk to their own peers about the need for safe sex.

"These activities fuel our hope for change," Moodie said. "We must listen and learn from each other. Policy makers must listen to those most affected by HIV. The drive for effective change virtually always comes first from those infected and affected by the virus."

Lisa Williams is the Cook Islands Media Association's Training Coordinator and a member of the UNESCO/PINA Pactrainer Group.

News from the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Secretariat, Suva, Fiji Islands.

PINA is the main professional organization of the Pacific Islands news media. Members are radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, and national organizations of news media practitioners in 21 Pacific Islands countries and territories. For more information contact Nina RATULELE, PINA Administrator, pina@is.com.fj

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