ACCORDING to the United Nations, the latest statistics in Papua New Guinea estimate that almost 47,000 people are infected with HIV in a country whose population is about eight million. UNAIDS' country director Stuart Watson (pictured) says that there's been an increase of 10,000 of people with HIV in the past two years. He spoke to Johnny Blades
STUART WATSON: In 2015 we estimated that the prevalence in the population was 0.7%. Just last week we completed the most recent estimations and projections for the epidemic in Papua New Guinea and we're now at 0.91%.
So contrary to the trends in many parts of the world, unfortunately in PNG, which has roughly 95% of the epidemic burden in the Pacific region, is trending in the wrong direction. So in PNG, those figures translate into just under 47,000 people living with HIV; roughly 3,000 new infections in the last year, of which nearly a quarter were children and youths. So it's definitely not a good situation.
JOHNNY BLADES: So the prevalence rate is an indication anyway, isn't it, that it could be more in reality anyway?
WATSON: Yes and I think probably if you spoke to people at the coalface, delivering the services, they would tell you that what they see walking into their clinics is probably much more serious than these numbers I'm giving you would indicate. In the past year we also estimate that roughly 1,500 people died unnecessarily from AIDS-related illnesses in the country. Now when we couple that with some of the things we're seeing in the delivery of health services in PNG.
We've had some near and complete stock-outs of anti-retroviral medicines, we've had a complete stock-out of rapid-testing kits, many other supplies and commodities in the health system, so it means we're not able to test people. We're not getting people on to treatment. Treatment is prevention. So basically we're just seeing things not going in the right direction, something of a perfect storm.
BLADES: Do you think that's to do with some of the funding constraints from government which we've been hearing about in lots of health areas?
WATSON: Definitely it is. You know again, part of the perfect storm is that a very sizable portion of the financial resources for Papua New Guinea's HIV response comes from donors, from primarily the government of Australia, but also the government of New Zealand, the European Union and the United Nations system. Over the last five years or so, roughly three-quarters of the resources.
Now over the last year there's been quite a serious decline as pressure on donors for a number of the crises underway around the world has meant that PNG has seen less and less money for the national response and as a result we're just not able to keep up with the demand and the rapidly growing population, and issues and problems in the health system in general in PNG.
BLADES: It seemed like 10 to 15 years ago HIV/AIDS was a lot more, should I say, in vogue as an issue. We seemed to hear a lot about it. Do you think it's dropped off a bit? There are so many other issue of course. Do you feel like it's gone off the radar a little bit, to the detriment of efforts to try and counter it?
WATSON: It most definitely has. And that's not just PNG. I would say that that's true globally. As advances in science and treatment have made HIV more or less a manageable chronic condition, the rhetoric that we hear around the epidemic is that 'we know how to control it, we know how to treat it, we know how to manage it'.
And so, to be perfectly honest, I think many of the donors and certainly ones that I deal with here in PNG are saying 'great, you know what you're doing, so we'll let you get on and do that, and we'll take our money and our priorities to other issues that are on our agenda'.
BLADES: What should other countries in the region, like Australia or New Zealand, do to help PNG?
WATSON: Well there is quite a bit of re-thinking going on. The old models of actually stepping in and essentially taking over some service delivery in PNG have perhaps created a bit of a dependence on external resources. So all of us are trying to re-think how we might be able to better deliver more effective aid around HIV and other issues as well.
Getting it right is always a difficult process. Engaging with governments, dealing with corruption, dealing with all the issues that come with delivering aid around the world, makes it a very difficult and tricky business and very difficult to get it right.