CHAIRMAN of the Parliamentary Committee on HIV/AIDS, Jamie Maxtone-Graham, made several poignant points to visiting MPs from Australia last week.
He said the HIV and AIDS epidemic was spreading uncontrolled throughout PNG and we had already lost the war to contain the spread once the virus spread beyond the boundaries of urban centres into the rural areas.
He further said the anti-retroviral drugs that charity organisations so generously distributed to HIV carriers and AIDS sufferers around the country might unwittingly spread drug resistant strains of the virus rather than help those infected.
Mr Maxtone-Graham, who is also chairman of the parliamentary committee investigating Asian-owned and operated businesses, is privately concerned the virus will decimate the population to the extent that outsiders will occupy and take over PNG.
This is as frightening as it is sobering.
Many might initially take this to be “scaremongering” more than anything and perhaps irresponsible coming from the head of a parliamentary committee but we urge that Mr Maxtone-Graham’s words require further contemplation and analysis.
It is a fact that quick action by health authorities might have contained the spread in urban
It is a fact that the rural areas of PNG are a logistical nightmare for the distribution of anything from awareness material to medicine and text books.
It is also a fact that PNG society is highly promiscuous in its sexual relations and that this society is very lax and indisciplined when it comes to consistency and time-keeping.
Illiteracy is high, and shame and cultural inhibitions prevent reporting of sex-related diseases.
Taking all of these together, PNG is a hotbed for the spread of infectious diseases.
It is far better to take Mr Maxtone-Graham’s point of view and to consider the worst case scenario and prepare for that rather than to pretend that it will all blow over as if this were a storm.
Could the spread of the virus have been contained within the boundaries of the urban centres? It is highly unlikely.
People move from village to towns and vice versa as they please. There is no policing mechanism and even if there were, it would be impossible to maintain effectively. So it was inevitable that the virus would spread into the rural areas.
Once there, the promiscuous nature of PNG society fed a growing flame until today, the virus rages like a bushfire through the Australian outback on a dry summer day.
Because of lack of medical services in all parts of PNG, citizens have lived with diseases without seeking medical attention. And because the virus only feeds other diseases (the virus itself is not disease causing), people live like they always did without bothering to seek medical attention and much less check on what might be causing their ailments until they die.
Even with all the HIV/AIDS awareness messages going out, when AIDS victims die, in many societies, sorcery is suspected. Many innocent lives have been tragically ended on suspicion of sorcery when the real culprit has been AIDS.
So the virus conveniently hides behind people’s ignorance and peculiar customary beliefs to continue its gruesome business.
Mr Maxtone-Graham is also dead right when he warns of indiscipline among carriers and sufferers unwittingly spreading drug resistant strains of the HIV.
Remember the popular PNG time. A requirement to take an anti-retroviral drug at 6pm every day just means a person can take the drug at anytime between 4pm or 9pm. Papua New Guineans do not live or act on exact timing.
Sometimes somebody might forget to take the drug in a day and take it the next day, believing that the previous day’s dosage is still effective.
This is not how it works but our people will take the attitude that so long as they are on the drug, they are safe. They are not.
As Mr Maxtone-Graham said, missing a single day’s dosage might lead to the person becoming resistant to drugs.
The other danger is also that people become complacent because they think once they are on the drug, they are cured so that they can afford to play around. This is also not true.
PNG cannot take its focus off the prevention message. It cannot let its guard down. Despite Mr Maxtone-Graham’s assertion that the battle is lost, it is imperative that all resources be brought to bear so that PNG does not lose the war.
It must not.