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By Katalina Uili Tohi

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (July 2, 2001 - PIDP/CPIS)---Knowledge about HIV/AIDS empowers and such empowerment can effectively combat the spread of the pandemic, Dr. Viliami Tangi, Minister of Health, said at the recent 26th Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, held to address the worldwide problems of HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Tangi said that in Tonga, such an approach not only applies to HIV/AIDS but also to combat other infectious diseases.

"We must therefore educate those in leadership and teaching roles at all levels of our community.

"Health workers, in particular, play a critical role in this equation. All relevant information on HIV/AIDS must be readily available. We must target both adults and the young people in our communities," he said.

Tonga's health minister also pointed out that the spread and effects of the pandemic do not respect regional or national boundaries and spare no communities.

Though the number of HIV/AIDS cases is relatively low in the Pacific and in Tonga, "This does not give rise to a sense of complacency. The incidence of HIV/AIDS cases is increasing. Tonga views preventative and control measures as of utmost importance in combating the disease.

"It is in this context that a national strategic plan is being developed in response to HIV/AIDS in Tonga. Priority areas for action include increasing community awareness of the disease, how it is transmitted and methods of prevention. Access to affordable drugs is essential as well as strengthening existing health care systems. Above all, financial resources must be mobilized for an effective response."

He added that certain groups within communities attract a higher risk of infection, which might be due to social circumstances, age, an employment situation or a lifestyle decision.

"Information and awareness activities must target these groups to increase their knowledge and awareness of their own vulnerability, to reduce their risk behavior and to promote healthy lifestyle choices," Dr. Tangi said.

He pointed out that it is of grave concern that HIV/AIDS prevalence is higher among women and young girls than any other group.

"There is clearly a need to develop measures to increase the capacity of women and girls to protect themselves from the risk of infection," he said, and suggested that this be done through preventative education and the provision of reproductive health services.

"Living with a potentially fatal condition produces great stress and strain, and those people have special problems and needs that must be addressed," Dr. Tangi said.

He added that these needs not only include health care and treatment but also extend to social and spiritual support.

"People living with HIV/AIDS have a right to confidentiality and must not be subjected to discrimination, whether it be in the family, the workplace or the community."

To address these, he maintained, community awareness of the special needs of people living with HIV/AIDS must be raised by strengthening, where possible, existing health care and support services and ensuring that quality counseling is available for all those involved.

"Basic national health and social infrastructures are essential for the effective delivery of preventative and care services. Our national health system is currently overstretched as it is. It is therefore vital that our national health system is improved and strengthened in order to cope with the demands of HIV/AIDS," including the existence of a safe blood supply system that provides protection to donors, recipients and health workers.

The health minister also encouraged the development of an on-going commitment to the HIV/AIDS response from the government, churches, non-government organisations and the private sector.

"At the regional level, organizations must be equipped to give support to and strengthen efforts undertaken at the national level. In this regard, the continuing presence of UNAIDS in the Pacific is crucial," Dr. Tangi said.

Dr. Tangi told the session that he believes that a Declaration of Commitment, to be adopted at the Special Session, "will lay the foundation for a global consensus to meeting the challenges ahead."

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