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SUVA, Fiji (PINA Nius Online) - World AIDS Day has been marked in the Pacific region's two biggest countries with grim warnings from health ministers about the growing impact of HIV/AIDS.

In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea Health Minister Melchior Pep said the HIV/AIDS storm could leave a devastating effect on the country and its economy if it is not brought under control.

In Suva, Fiji, Health Minister Solomone Naivalu confirmed the ministry is looking at compulsory testing as one of the ways of trying to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS.

At the regional Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Suva, secretary-general Noel Levi said: "With Pacific people being so mobile these days, what affects our neighbours, affects us."

Pep said the disease was spreading at an alarming rate and more and more people are dying from it every day. He said even though the National AIDS Council has worked very hard in the past years - with support from partners - to educate people, more needs to be done.

The Minister said since the first official HIV positive case was reported in 1987 in the country, the infection increased slowly but steadily up until 1995. Thereafter the figures rose dramatically until December 2001 when it was reported that 4,792 people in the country were diagnosed with HIV infection.

In 2000, it was estimated that between 5,000 to 22,000 people in Papua New Guinea may be infected, most of them acquiring or passing it on to another person without knowing it.

Mr Pep said currently it is estimated that 100 people are getting infected every month.

He said the official number of deaths so far is 270. But it must be noted that currently there is no reliable HIV/AIDS notification system in place to determine number of deaths.

The Minister said Papua New Guinea is ranked the highest in the Pacific region with a rising number. He said this is most probably due to facilities that are in place in the country to test and determine the HIV status of a person.

Papua New Guinea is also way ahead with its awareness programs and having the biggest awareness drive in the region, he said.

In Suva, Mr Naivalu confirmed to Radio Australia the compulsory testing issue is part of the ministry's preventative strategy now being looked at by state lawyers.

Senior health officials previously downplayed reports that the ministry was moving to make HIV/AIDS testing compulsory in Fiji.

Some people had slammed the move saying that compulsory testing would hinder the constitutional and human rights of every Fiji citizen.

Fiji has a total of 104 confirmed HIV cases but the Health Minister believes there are more carriers still undetected.

Some health professionals believe the number could be much higher, based on the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the country.  

From the Forum Secretariat, Mr Levi said: "The theme of World AIDS Day - Stigma and Discrimination - reminds us of what we can do to combat this serious threat to our communities. HIV/AIDS is much more than a medical condition - it has a social, economic and political impact from which none of us is immune."

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