4 Dec 2020

United Nations warns stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs causing problems in the Pacific

4:48 pm on 4 December 2020

Discrimination towards those with HIV/AIDS is what's driving the stigma against people living with the disease in the Pacific, the United Nations warns.


In Papua New Guinea, there were 52,000 people suffering from HIV by the end of 2019. Photo: Supplied/UNAIDS PNG

The UN AIDS agency in the Pacific said this bias was fuelled by a lack of understanding of the disease and misconception of how the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was spread.

UN AIDS Pacific said that poor understanding and the social stigma also made it difficult for those who were newly diagnosed to accept their HIV-positive status.

World AIDS Day was commemorated this week and the UN agency reported that the number of HIV cases in the Pacific remained a concern.

New infections a concern in PNG

In Papua New Guinea, there were 52,000 people suffering from HIV by the end of 2019.

Business4Health's Ann Clarke said nine people contracted the disease every day with 3300 infected over the course of a year.

Clarke said topics covered by the agency included "how strong are the condoms, how to negotiate condom use with your partner, how to practice saying no to sex without condom, and engaging people about feeling comfortable about talking about safer sex".

Clarke they were also focused on the law and "what is consent".

David Bridger.

David Bridger. Photo: Supplied/UNAIDS PNG

UN AIDS PNG head David Bridger said the latest figures indicated HIV was not over yet in the country.

Bridger said with a population of about nine million, the HIV prevalence was 0.9 percent.

But the "real concern" in PNG was that new infections continued to rise, with the number of new infections over 3000 cases.

"While HIV in the [Pacific] region is declining declining in terms of new infections, in PNG it continues to increase," Bridger said.

"This is because our prevention efforts are not at the scale which is up to speed in terms of addressing the scale of the epidemic throughout the country.

"So there's a lot more to do in terms of prevention and ensuring people have access to testing and to treatment."

One key area that needed focus was awareness, Bridger said.

At least four of the nine people infected with HIV daily in PNG were young people.

"So clearly our prevention efforts and our awareness efforts with that new generation of young people have not paid dividends."

Fiji urges safe sex practices

In Fiji, the government announced there were 1260 cases of HIV since 1989 with 124 of them recorded between January and October this year.

Health Minister Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete said of these, 41 percent were females.

Waqainabete said 117 people had died in Fiji last year.

One third of the population were youth and Waqainabete reminded the public to take responsibility for their lives by practising safe sex.

"No girl child should ever leave school or commit suicide just because she is pregnant," Waqainabete said.

"We have contraceptives available to assist you to enjoy your sexual life safely and reasonably while you complete high school and tertiary education.

"While the barrier methods of family planning prevent HIV, they are important in preventing unintended pregnancies in women living with HIV and the further transmission of HIV until they are virally suppressed."

Need for more funding

UN AIDS said there was still a critical need for increased funding for the AIDS response to increase awareness of the impact of HIV on people's lives.

That could also help to end stigma and discrimination and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV, the organisation said.

Bridger said funding for HIV response in PNG had "significantly dropped" over the last five to 10 years.

"Things are beginning to turn around a little bit. As of this year we'll see a larger proportion of global fund money come here to work largely on prevention which is really welcome.

"But still we are not seeing an increase in the government's contribution to the response and that's still a big concern.

"That's understandable as the government is being pulled in different ways and directions in health and education as well."

UN AIDS Pacific director Renata Ram said zero discrimination towards HIV was also a focus because discrimination reduced people's access to testing, treatment and care.

Discrimination that drove stigma, fuelled by a lack of understanding and misconception of how HIV spread.

"It is the general public as well as health workers who we empower with correct information.

"It is only then we can help sufferers overcome the isolation and burden brought on by others."

Taboo subject a contributing issue

Bridger said sex was always a taboo subject in many cultures and it was no different in PNG.

He said HIV was prevalent among sex workers and gay and transgender people.

Those groups faced enormous levels of stigma and discrimination in PNG and they were highly marginalised within the general community.

"So they don't often feel welcome in accessing health services and they don't understand the need for regular tests - not only for HIV but for STIs and TB as well."

Renata Ram.

Renata Ram. Photo: Supplied/UNAIDS Pacific

But Ram said while HIV/AIDS was seen as a death sentence, technology and science had allowed people living with the disease to continue a long healthy life, just as any other chronic disease.

That was through antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, she said.

When taken correctly it can suppress the virus and when a person reaches viral suppression, the virus is no longer detected in the blood.

"We call this U=U, undetectable is equal to untransmittable, meaning a person can no longer infect other persons.

"This does not cure a person living with HIV, but keeps them healthy and unable to pass on the virus."

Ram said in Fiji under the HIV Law 2011, networks of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) were given free ARV treatment for life to ensure social protection and protection against discrimination in the workplace.

"These protective laws ensure PLHIV are given free treatment for life and have legal protection against discrimination, especially on the grounds of employment," she said.

Bridger said more work was needed in countries to reassure people that HIV was not a death sentence.


.. Photo: Supplied/UNAIDS PNG