FEAR, STIGMA DRIVE PNG HIV PATIENTS TO AUSTRALIA

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By Daniel Korimbao

BRISBANE, Australia (November 30, 2001 – The National)---Affluent Papua New Guineans living with the HIV virus are seeking treatment in North Queensland, Australia because of the fear and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in PNG, and because of a lack of services in the country, a conference in Melbourne on AIDS was told.

According to a report in the Australian Associated Press published last month, Dr. David Bradford, Director of Sexual Health Services at Cairns Base Hospital, told the conference that he had treated seven men and seven women from PNG at the hospital in the last 18 months.

Dr. Bradford said the clinic receives an average of two calls a week from people in PNG inquiring about HIV.

He said the death of a PNG woman from a complication of anti-retroviral therapy after 18 months of long-distance care had impacted severely on the unit. The identities of the woman who died, and the 14 who received treatment from the Cairns Base Hospital, were not disclosed.

"Pressure on my staff is great -- and it's not so much in terms of workload but emotional pressure," Dr. Bradford said.

He said anti-retroviral drugs, which slow the progress of the HIV virus in the human body, were not available in PNG.

"A diagnosis of HIV in PNG at the moment is basically a death sentence," he said, because the average Papua New Guinean cannot afford the treatment.

Journalists from the Pacific attending a workshop in Brisbane this week learned that it costs about AU$ 12,000 (US$ 6,263) a year for an Australian infected with the virus to buy anti-retroviral drugs as treatment, and the Australian Government pays for this.

For most Papua New Guineans infected with the HIV virus, this is money they just cannot afford.

Dr. Bradford said Cairns health professionals had advised doctors in Port Moresby, supplied anti-retroviral drugs to PNG nationals who could pay for them, and monitored their progress by telephone.

The drugs, known as post-exposure prophylaxis, were not available in PNG.

The Australian Society for HIV Medicine was told that PNG faced a frightening AIDS epidemic with an estimated 15,000 people out of a population of five million people infected with HIV.

HIV was no longer confined to the cities but was spreading to all the provinces, with 100 new cases a month diagnosed.

Lack of laboratory facilities in PNG meant testing did not occur until the infection had progressed, anti-retroviral drugs were mostly unaffordable, and there was poor surveillance of the spread of the disease.

Director of the PNG National AIDS Council, Dr. Clement Malau, who also attended the Melbourne conference, said that rates were as high as 17 percent in the high-risk groups, such as Port Moresby sex workers.

Since HIV/AIDS was first recorded in PNG in 1987, almost 4,000 people have to date tested positive for HIV, 1,366 have developed full-blown AIDS, and 249 people have died from AIDS.

But the PNG National AIDS Council estimates that there could be 15,000 to 22,000 people infected with the virus in PNG, and warned of devastating effects if the spread of the virus was not contained.

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

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