The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (February 20) – At a time when HIV/AIDS is much in the forefront of Papua New Guinean news, an article that appeared this week in the venerable "Sydney Morning Herald" could hardly have greater relevance to our country.

The feature referred to the current outbreak of a virus known as "Super AIDS" in New York, the United States’ most cosmopolitan city.

While the impact of the longer established HIV/AIDS virus has been mitigated by anti-retroviral drugs, this new arrival shows little signs of responding to those long-established regimens.

The discovery of this new and virulent disease is bad news for the world, and that includes PNG.

For just as our awareness of the parameters of HIV/AIDS is growing, we may well be faced now with an even more intractable problem, requiring an even deeper and more extensive awareness campaign.

Those concerns aside, the impact of the article in the "Herald" touched upon issues very close to the situation in this country.

The author clearly and concisely made a strong case for the Australian approach to fighting HIV/AIDS, while describing the United States approach to the disease as "an unqualified catastrophe."

Mr Bill Bowtell is a former senior adviser to the Australian federal health minister, the former national president of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, and an architect of Australia’s response to HIV/AIDS.

The main focus of his story is the contrast that he establishes between the anti HIV/AIDS campaigns implemented by the United States and Australia.

And he offers some striking statistics.

Mr Bowtell writes: "Australia’s record of great success in managing HIV/AIDS stands in contrast to America’s catastrophic record of failure, venality and incompetence.

After 25 years of combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, the US has an infection rate 10 times that of Australia’s.

In 2003 the rate of HIV prevalence in Australia was 69 per 100,000, compared with 600 per 100,000 in the US. The incidence of AIDS was 1.5 per 100,000 in Australia against 15 per 100,000 in the US."

Those statistics should concern the people of PNG.

One obvious recent development in our country has been the insidious growth of a quasi-religious and deeply political response to both the illness and to those who are now HIV/AIDS positive.

The religious response is many sided, and ranges from the purse lipped sanctimoniousness of many "born-again" Papua New Guineans, to the doubtless utterly sincere but equally misguided condemnation of some of the clergy and adherents of "mainstream" churches.

It is an irony that this disease appears to present the first occasion when these two disparate groups have been able to see eye to eye on any subject.

Mr Bowtell writes: "US governments long ago succumbed to popular prejudice and fundamentalist religious pressure to combat the HIV/AIDS problem by adopting policies based on punishment, faith and emotion, and not prevention, education and reason.

Honest sex education and condom use were dumped in favour of the promotion of abstinence from sex and monogamous marriage."

It seems to us that this situation could all too readily be repeated in PNG.

Allegations of increased promiscuity as the result of condom use are being skillfuly circulated in a bid to obscure the great beenfits condoms have brought, and will continue to bring to our people.

Again, we quote Mr Bowtell: "America chose to fund a permanent, fruitless quest for the Holy Grail of a HIV vaccine while shunning the common, convenient, cheap latex prophylactic that works like a charm to prevent HIV infection........

The lesson is clear. If you want ...... HIV/AIDS caseloads to increase tenfold then follow America’s example, and try to legislate and pray HIV/AIDS out of existence."

We commend the article to all who are fighting HIV/AIDS in PNG.

February 21, 2005

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