SCHOOLGIRLS in Papua New Guinea are contracting HIV/AIDS as a result of being targeted by businessmen cruising school areas for lunchtime sex.
Holy Spirit Sister Tarcisia Hunhoff, who is co-ordinator of the National Catholic AIDS Office of Papua New Guinea, made the revelation during a visit to Sydney, coinciding with International AIDS Day (December 1), to support Caritas Australia’s efforts to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS tragedy in PNG.
Sr Hunhoff spoke of how the crisis is affecting teenage girls.
‘One of the highest increases in HIV-positive prevalence in PNG in recent years has been among girls between the ages of 14 and 19,’ she said.
‘They are particularly vulnerable because older men prefer to have sex with teenagers, particularly virgins.
‘We are considering negotiating with the Education Department to have lunch hour in Port Moresby schools changed so that it doesn’t coincide with the lunchtime of businesses.
‘There is a high incidence of men cruising school areas for lunchtime sex and offering to pay the girls’ school fees for intercourse.
‘For young girls whose families are extremely poor, it can be a difficult proposition to fight.’
Sr Hunhoff said that in the Philippines, where there have been similar problems for similar reasons, changing the time of the school lunch hour had been successful in helping the fight against AIDS.
She said the overall situation in PNG had reached crisis point.
‘So many people are HIV-positive, so many are now suffering from AIDS-related diseases.’
It is estimated that 50 per cent of all patients in medical and tuberculosis wards in Port Moresby are there due to AIDS illnesses.
The official estimate of the number of adults and children living with HIV/AIDS in PNG at the end of last year was 16,000 but the PNG National AIDS Office suspects up to 50,000 people are infected.
Since 1998, AIDS has been the leading cause of death among adults at the Port Moresby General Hospital.
HIV prevalence is almost doubling each year, and it is most prevalent among those aged 15 to 49 years. Infections are forecast to rise to more than 1 million by 2015-20.
Caritas Australia says the Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of health care in PNG.
It says Sr Hunhoff and her team are helping to limit mother-to-child HIV infection.
The National Catholic Health Office has organised HIV/AIDS training for health workers and improved health facilities in areas with high HIV-positive rates.
It is also training medical staff in the use of anti-retroviral therapy, in readiness for when the PNG Government has new access to this treatment which has some success in slowing the progress of the disease.
‘But this therapy costs big money and very few families can afford it,’ Sr Hunhoff said.
Caritas Australia says the main way HIV is transmitted in PNG is through heterosexual sex.
‘Married women are extremely vulnerable,’ Sr Hunhoff said. ‘Usually they are faithful to their husbands but it is the husband who brings the virus into the home.
‘Women do not have the level of rights of Australian women and there is little they can say or do about the sexual behaviour of their husbands.’
For that reason, the Catholic agency is pro-actively educating people in family values, following experience in Uganda where this approach has proved successful in reducing the spread of AIDS.
Parents are taught awareness of the disease, how it is transmitted and the value of monogamous relationships.
‘We are educating people that one of the best, most protective things they can do is delay their first sexual encounter,’ Sr Hunhoff said.
‘This strategy has worked in Uganda and we are confident that it can work here.’
Sr Hunhoff said testing was also crucial. Five voluntary testing and AIDS care centres have been established but more are needed.
‘Voluntary testing and counselling can be a very powerful experience,’ she said.
‘We find that people who have been indulging in risky behaviours, who decide to have the test and are found to be negative, are so grateful and relieved that they make a big commitment to changing their risky sexual behaviours.
‘For those who are found to be positive, we are able to offer support, encouragement and practical help.
‘We do not really have the level of testing for HIV that is necessary for the population, given our estimates of infection.
‘Fortunately, Caritas Australia is helping us to expand this, by helping to increase our rapid testing facilities, centres and equipment.’
AusAID, the Australian Government’s aid and development agency, has allocated $2.9 million to help Caritas Australia and other members of the Churches Partnership Program in PNG to provide essential health and education services there.
Caritas Australia has provided funding for an HIV care and counselling centre in Madang, and this initiative will be expanded in the next nine months to include three more HIV care centres across the country.
Other efforts of Caritas Australia include supporting the training of 320 health care workers in HIV/AIDS management, and additional workshops for 480 school teachers who deliver AIDS health education.
Donations to support Caritas Australia in this work can be made by phoning 1800 024 413 or by visiting www.caritas.org.au.