Tropical Nightmare: AIDS Devastating Papua New Guinea

20% of Island Could Die Within 9 Years, Doctors Fear

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand, APR. 15, 2001 ( In the same week that Time magazine ran a cover story on AIDS in Africa, a priest was warning about a similar epidemic ravaging a country on the other side of the world.

Father Michael McCabe, director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Center, was conducting a seminar in the highlands of Papua New Guinea for 22 Catholic bishops from that country and the nearby Solomon Islands. He had been invited by their bishops´ conference to address them on bioethical issues.

In his opening session, in February, he warned the bishops that Papua New Guinea, a nation of 4.9 million people, was facing an epidemic similar to the one that was devastating sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report in the April edition of Wel-come, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Wellington.

Doctors working in Papua New Guinea have estimated that the country risks losing about 20% of its population in nine years — a million people.

Father McCabe said the average age of women there with HIV is 27 and the average age for men is 30. Countless children are going to be left as orphans, he warned, and the country faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its workforce.

Father McCabe explained that the epidemic was driven by a number of factors including poverty and the poor status of women.

In the highlands, men who work in the mines live away from their families. Many have sex with prostitutes who are infected and when the men return to their families they spread the infection at home. Complicating the problem is the fact that polygamy is still practiced in some parts of Papua New Guinea, which comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.

Victims of AIDS are sometimes ostracized — or worse. Father McCabe told of accounts of people being thrown into the river with their hands tied. They were killed because they had HIV or AIDS and seen as having brought shame to their village.

The bishops at the seminar were considering how to best respond pastorally to the unfolding tragedy. «They could see there was a major job in educating their communities on what is needed which included reaffirming the need for abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage,» Father McCabe said.

The bishops´ conference has a subcommittee on AIDS and it hopes to receive financial assistance from a donation that Australian aid agencies had earmarked for AIDS programs in Papua New Guinea. The seminar was sponsored by Caritas in Australia and New Zealand.

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