4 Jul 2013

Scepticism about latest AIDS revelations in PNG

4:53 pm on 4 July 2013

The National AIDS Council Secretariat in Papua New Guinea says the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic is being contained and fears the virus would become a pandemic have been allayed.

But some working directly with the victims of the disease are not so sure.

Jamie Tahana reports:

The director of the National AIDS Council Secretariat, Peter Bire, says fears the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Papua New Guinea will evolve into a pandemic have been allayed and that the epidemic has been contained.

"PETER BIRE: Basically, the picture in PNG is not what we suspected before when we drew conclusions similar to the African experience and we were collating with that. But for PNG, the true picture, because of improvements in the service delivery and how we are doing things we've come up with a new estimation and it's based on better information and understanding the epidemiology of the areas in PNG."

Peter Bire says the epidemic is concentrated within certain communities which he attributes to an increase in the number of people seeking treatment and better surveillance. He says that nationwide, the prevalence rate is coming down, with more people using contraception and getting tested.

PETER BIRE: It's prevention. When people are given medicine, you know, their viral load comes down and they are less infectious so that's where the focus is now, looking at preventing new infections. We understand that by getting better information we know where it's really coming from and which people, so we are targetting those areas and people who are most at risk.

The leadership and advocacy advisor for the United Nations AIDS programme in Papua New Guinea, Joanna Robinson, says the news the epidemic is being contained is good, but needs to be treated with caution. Ms Robinson says while she agrees the prevalence levels are coming down, the virus still poses a formidable public health challenge.

JOANNA ROBINSON: I agree with what it said in the article that prevalence levels are coming down nationally, but the national prevalence figure doesn't necessarily give a true picture of the kind of regional or provincial situation. So there are certain provinces as there have always been in the Highlands and NCD which continue to have prevalence levels of around 1 percent as far as I can see from the data.

Steve Layton is the co-director of AT Projects. Based in Goroka, he works directly with infected people in the worst-affected Highlands region. He says he's sceptical of the claims and is not seeing any improvements on the ground and it's difficult to say if the virus is really contained or not. He says the data used by the National AIDS Council has been collected from ante-natal clinics and don't relate to trends being seen with sexually transmitted infections.

STEVE LAYTON: You have STI's being still very, very high and there's obviously a direct correlation between STI's and HIV/AIDS. So, if you were to look at the number of STI's being reported that's certainly not going down. So is there isn't any real logic in assuming that HIV/AIDS is going down also? I would really tend to doubt that.

Mr Layton says there is still a lot of work to do with an awful lot of people still suffering from HIV/AIDS in PNG. He says facilities are few and far between in rural areas and the help is just not there.

STEVE LAYTON: If you have HIV/AIDS, and now very many people are aware of what the symptoms are and what's going to happen to you, a lot of people don't even attempt to get treatment. They don't come in, they don't report the fact they've got AIDS. People literally will just do the best they can in their rural locations and basically die.

Peter Bire says the National AIDS council has started doing what he calls 'targetted interventions', which mean the most at-risk populations and the most affected areas are being targetted to get the most effective outcome.