HIV SET TO PASS MALARIA, PNEUMONIA IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA AS MAJOR DISEASE

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (June 27, 2000 - The National/PINA Nius Online)---Within five years HIV infection will take over from pneumonia and malaria as Papua New Guinea's biggest disease burden, Health Secretary Dr. Puka Temu said in Queensland yesterday.

Dr. Temu said the official figures of 2,300 HIV infections were the "tip of the iceberg" and it is believed another 8,000 people remain undetected.

By next year, it is projected that 25,000 Papua New Guineans will be HIV infected, the majority aged 15 to 25 years.

"HIV infection is rising exponentially," Dr. Temu told the Tropical Millennium Bugs conference in Noosa, north of Brisbane.

Over the past two years, he said, the makeup of the adult medical wards at Port Moresby General Hospital had changed, with AIDS already the leading cause of death in these wards.

AIDS patients will now have to be cared for at home in villages, with hospitalization reserved for those suffering opportunistic infections such as TB, meningitis, diarrhea and pneumonia.

Dr. Temu said the biggest challenge facing health authorities in combating all diseases was to empower individuals, families and communities to take responsibility for their own health.

"Many of our people are illiterate, and there are 800 languages in the country," he said.

"It's going to be a monumental task to change behavior."

Health educators are creating comic books and cassette tapes of songs with anti-AIDS messages, but discussion of sexuality is culturally taboo.

"There is and always will be some stigma attaching to HIV," he said.

There was one case of a mother abandoning her HIV-infected baby, but most families accept and care for relatives with AIDS, of which there are now 230 cases.

Almost all HIV infection in PNG results from heterosexual transmission, but transmission from mother to baby is of increasing concern.

All pregnant women are screened for syphilis and HIV, but no anti-retroviral drugs are available during labor to reduce the risk of transmission.

"We don't have any anti-retroviral because of the expense, and we don't have the laboratory set-ups to enable the kind of monitoring that would be needed," Dr. Temu told AAP.

PNG was pinning its hopes on World Health Organization efforts to get pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of AIDS drugs, he said.

Dr. Temu, who is in Australia on an AusAID sponsored visit for talks in Canberra, said he expected HIV /AIDS cases to continue to mount for five to seven years before plateauing.

A multi-million Australian aid program to combat HIV will begin later this year

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

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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