HIV and AIDS in the Pacific

In the Pacific, more than 90 per cent of HIV infections reported in 2004 were recorded in Papua New Guinea, prompting grim predictions that PNG is fast becoming the new frontline in the battle against HIV and AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region.

The World Health Organisation has predicted that one in five Papua New Guinean men, women and children will be infected with HIV within the next decade unless urgent action is taken. Extreme poverty, sexual violence, inequality between men and women, a lack of knowledge about the disease in many areas and limited or no access to health care, create an explosive combination fuelling the spread of HIV-infection in the country.

HIV and AIDS awareness raising in PNG. Credit: Anne Lockley/Oxfam

The incidence of HIV and AIDS in PNG is similar to Southern Africa in 1992 with a 50 per cent increase in the infection rate annually. Yet, the situation in PNG has one major advantage over Africa – there is warning of the emerging pandemic. There is still a chance catastrophe can be averted before it becomes inevitable.

Women in PNG are at particular risk. They are at least four times more vulnerable to infection than men because their social standing does now allow them to negotiate safe sex. Violence against women, rape and sexual abuse are all too common. Any attempt to address the issue of HIV and AIDS must at the same time focus on women’s empowerment, what is acceptable sexual behaviour and attitudes that contribute to the low standing and powerlessness of women and girls.

Oxfam is working primarily in rural areas of PNG, where stigma and discrimination is generally much worse. Many people with HIV feel they must hide their infections to avoid discrimination in their communities.

Elsewhere in Melanesia, rates of HIV infection remain quite low. However, the underlying factors that can lead to rapid spread of HIV do exist, so carrying out education and awareness raising work now is essential to prevent a future pandemic.

Download the 2010 UNAIDS reports on Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu for the latest summary of HIV/AIDS in these countries.