The National, Monday 05th December 2011
LAST Thursday, the world united to acknowledge one of mankind’s worst scourges – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, popularly known as AIDS, caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV.
It has become one of the most-recognised international health days and a key opportunity to raise awareness, think about those who have passed on and celebrate victories such as increased access to treatment and prevention services.
AIDS is caused by the immune system being depleted of its cells by HIV. Once enough of these cells have been destroyed by HIV, the body is not capable of fighting off other bacteria and viruses as easily, particularly opportunistic infections.
The word “acquired” is included because you have to catch HIV, it does not just spontaneously occur. Since it was noticed by medical professionals in the early 1980s as a serious threat to the masses, HIV/AIDS has taken on plague-like proportions invading every level of the population in every continent. Particularly disturbing is the unfettered rise of the virus in the Third World and developing countries.
Papua New Guinea falls into this bracket of nations which have been affected by the ravages of a disease that has no cure. Perhaps, it is the most difficult epidemic in human history to control, given its most common mode of transmission in countries like PNG.
Unsafe sex remains the leading cause of transmission. Other modes are mother-to-child during childbirth and the sharing of needles or other sharp instruments which cut or pierce the skin. But sex is largely responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Sex or sexual behaviour in many countries across the globe is not an easily or openly discussed topic. In many societies, the issue is increasingly left to the education system to inculcate into youths ethical and acceptable behavioural norms associated with sex.
In countries such as PNG, the dissemination of information on HIV/AIDS or “awareness”, as is the local term for it, targets responsible and safe sexual habits as a means of prevention. The moral standpoint has taken a back seat much to the chagrin of the church.
Abstinence for the vast majority of adults, and in a growing number of cases pubescent population is an unrealistic option.
Age-old and tested cultural norms either have no purchase in the modern world or are corrupted or simply ignored by the post-independence generations.
Polygamous relationships, once looked upon as a sign of good standing in the community, are now little more than an excuse to cavort and philander by today’s generation.
Prevention by whatever means, physical, as in the use of prophylactics, or behavioural, as in attitudinal change, must be pursued.
This is seen as the only pragmatic and practical way of controlling the spread of the disease in this country.
Medicines used to manage the debilitating effects of full-blown AIDS, antiretroviral drugs as they are known, do not come cheaply.
Despite mass production by pharmaceutical companies, the cost of treatment and medication is way above the means of 99% of
ordinary Papua New Guineans.
Hence, in most cases, being tested positive for AIDS is virtually a death sentence.
An untimely death, preceded by bouts of severe illness due to the effects of once easily-manageable infections is the course for all sufferers.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, in a statement last week on World AIDS Day, said: “All people, irrespective of their status, must change their behaviour and refrain from sex (abstain) or be faithful to their partner” in order to be safe. Unfortunately, the national parliament is, perhaps, one of the last places the ordinary citizen should look to for exemplary behaviour in this regard.
It is not unheard of for MPs to have more than one spouse or to maintain more than one marital relationship.
From a global perspective, a report by the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) recently reported that HIV infections, incidences and deaths had decreased to the lowest levels since the peak of the epidemic.
For Papua New Guineans, this is not necessarily true simply because our capacity to identify, assess and measure the spread HIV/AIDS within our population is still done, to a large extent, on guesswork.