Papua New Guinea

Can Uncle Condom Save a Nation?

Photo: Jerome Martin/Images IXO-Getty

When a highly respected archbishop says he is aware “from first-hand experience” of the terrible personal and social cost and consequences of HIV/AIDS, a reporter may, understandably, raise a quizzical eyebrow.

But James Ayong, the affable and compassionate Archbishop of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church of Papua New Guinea, hastens to explain that he is talking about a devout member of his Church, recently diagnosed with AIDS.

“I gave money to a man from Oro province north of Port Moresby, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, to enable him to return home,” Ayong told World Press Review.

He goes on to explain that the man, “Daniel,” had been unwilling to come to the diocesan office in case his condition became public knowledge, so the money was given to him in the highlands.

“He only got as far as Kundiawa, one-quarter into his planned journey, where he collapsed on the public motor vehicle on which he was traveling. He was rushed to hospital, and died almost immediately,” the archbishop said.

Unfortunately, this kind of story is becoming much more common in Papua New Guinea, an island state of around 5 million inhabitants that sits just north of Australia. With more than 40,000 people already reported as being infected with HIV/AIDS, and many more unreported cases, the crisis is threatening to cripple the nation’s health services and Papua New Guinea’s economy.

In a report issued earlier this year, AusAID, the Australian government’s overseas aid program, quoted what it called “some startling and alarming statistics” on the impact of HIV on the Papua New Guinea government’s health system. “If the epidemic is left to run at the present rate of increase, 70 percent of hospital beds in the country could be occupied by AIDS patients in 2010,” the report says.

Adding to the problem is the aura of shame that surrounds the disease in this nation of tight-knit communities. Like Daniel, many inhabitants of Papua New Guinea are afraid to tell anyone that they have contracted the disease. As Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, pointed out in a nationally televised broadcast on World AIDS Day last year, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS can have devastating social consequences.

“People are being thrown out of their homes or banished from their villages, merely on suspicion of having HIV/AIDS,” said Somare. “Children are being taken from their parents, and parents are being denied access to their children. Mothers who are desperate to find food for their children are forced to turn to risky behavior for the survival of their families. Babies are being abandoned, and I have even heard that people are being murdered—all in the name of a disease.” Somare said that his country was “facing an invisible national emergency.”

Ayong agrees that the country is facing an epidemic, but he also criticizes the government, which he feels is doing little to curb the spread of the disease.

“While I understand the desire of Papua New Guinea’s government to avoid alarming people unnecessarily, and its consequent reluctance to allow doctors to speak publicly about HIV/AIDS, I feel that this will not be helpful in the long run,” he says.

In the absence of government action, church organizations and dioceses such as Ayong’s are working overtime to address the crisis. The Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) in Australia is helping Papua New Guinea’s Anglican church with a program called STOPAIDS, which has a low annual budget of 250,000 kina (US$66,257). The Australian government, through its Foreign Affairs Department’s AusAID program, is giving US$41 million to HIV/AIDS work in Papua New Guinea over 5 years. And the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby and the U.K. government are also starting to provide financial help for AIDS victims, according to ABM.

Recent statistics show that STOPAIDS has reached about 35,000 people through information programs in schools, on construction sites, and in business houses, urban settlements, and rural communities. One difficulty the program faces is that many people live in remote areas of the mountainous country, accessible only by sea or light aircraft. Even if they can be reached, there’s no guarantee that community workers will be able to talk directly to the villagers, as there are more than 800 different languages and cultural groups in Papua New Guinea.

“The Anglican Health Service of the Church in Papua New Guinea is training nurses in skills to deliver HIV/AIDS counseling,” Sopie Davies, an ABM spokeswoman, told WPR by telephone from Melbourne. “But much of the effort so far has been put into prevention and awareness-raising, which is where resources are needed at the moment.”

Key causal factors in the disease’s spread in Papua New Guinea include prostitution, rape, homosexual sex, and the widespread acceptance of polygamy—all combined with either ignorance of, or the refusal to use, condoms.

Jeanette Southwell, the CEO of STOPAIDS, said that educating men and women in Papua New Guinea to practice safe sex by using condoms was the most effective way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, she said, some of the evangelical fundamentalist sects actively preached and worked against condom use. These groups are deeply shocked by an indigenous traveling theater group whose leading character, Uncle Condom, urges villagers to use condoms to protect themselves.

While it is difficult to give somber speeches to groups of Papuans about intimate subjects like sex and AIDS, they roar with laughter when Uncle Condom appears on stage, STOPAIDS workers say. His message stays with them.

“In Papua New Guinea, HIV affects the younger rather than [the] older population, especially the semi-professional and professional community,” Southwell said. “We are attempting to avert the economic disaster which could result from the sub-Saharan pattern of the progress of HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea.”

Southwell points out that Papua New Guinea is not like some Asian countries, where drug use and prostitution are principal causes of the spread of HIV/AIDS, and have been used to drive awareness campaigns. “Papua New Guinea is similar to Africa, where violence, culture...and sexual taboos are major contributing factors in the spread of the virus,” she said.

Figures provided by AusAID, which has so far given about US$215,000 to the National AIDS Council of Papua New Guinea, show that most victims are between 15 and 44. UNICEF says Papua New Guinea is also home to more than 2,000 children orphaned by AIDS—another social problem that the churches, with their limited resources, are doing their best to tackle.

Although few statistics are available, some observers claim that HIV/AIDS is already spreading from Papua New Guinea across the border into the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea island, which was called Irian Jaya until 2002, then renamed Papua as part of a package of semi-autonomy measures. Others put forward the contrary view, that the virus was introduced to Papua New Guinea through Papua/Irian Jaya, where there was already a serious AIDS crisis.

The introduction of new cases of the disease to Australia through Papua New Guinea and West Papua is another concern. In The Australian on Aug. 4, Mischa Schubert quoted what she claimed was a secret federal government report that demanded “a ‘major revitalization’ of Australia’s HIV/AIDS strategy because our once world-leading efforts to curb the virus have stalled….The HIV review warns new infections are on the rise after a decade of decline.”

Despite considerable political sensitivity, including in his own party, Prime Minister Somare has pulled no punches when talking about the AIDS crisis. “In every province, out in the villages in the remotest areas, it is touching ordinary Papua New Guineans. Every day people are dying from HIV/AIDS in our major hospitals,” Somare said in his World AIDS Day broadcast.

The prime minister cautioned the public not to stigmatize those with HIV/AIDS. “People who know that they will be rejected by society become fearful. They will not seek testing, counseling, treatment, and support if this means facing discrimination, breach of confidence, eviction from their homes, sacking from their jobs, and even the real possibility of being murdered,” he said.

In order to overcome the crisis, Somare concluded, the people of Papua New Guinea must join forces and help each other. “We must learn how to manage this epidemic. We must learn how to prevent its spread,” he said. “We must learn to apply the basic virtues of love and tolerance to all around us. If we work together, we can save our nation.”