Papua New Guinea making significant strides in its battle against HIV

Feature story

Over 95% of HIV cases in the Pacific are reported from just one country – Papua New Guinea. With a population of 7.6 million people, it has the most serious HIV burden of the 22 Pacific island countries and areas in the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Region.

However, Papua New Guinea is making significant strides in the formidable battle against HIV.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) – the most effective treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS – has been scaled up rapidly over the past decade in Papua New Guinea. Close to 24 000 people living with HIV were on treatment at the end of 2016. That is a remarkable achievement in a country where the HIV prevalence among the general population hovers at about 0.9%.

As in other settings, HIV affects key populations disproportionately. Data collected from facilities across the country that provide HIV testing show that 4.3% of men who have sex with men (MSM) and 5.9 % of female sex workers are HIV-positive. Studies in Port Moresby, the capital, found an alarmingly high HIV prevalence of 16% among people who had sold or exchanged sex.

WHO has been instrumental in helping shift the HIV response in Papua New Guinea towards efforts to address key populations, including sex workers, MSM and the transgender population. WHO has worked in collaboration with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to support the Government in addressing the daunting challenge of preventing further transmission of HIV and treating people living with HIV.

Despite recent progress, the emergence and spread of HIV drug resistance poses a serious concern, with the potential of slowing the expansion of treatment and reversing progress in fighting the epidemic.

WHO and the National Department of Health are working together to conduct a national HIV drug-resistance survey to confirm the efficacy of the first-line drug treatment and to plan for next steps.

Other concrete actions being taken in Papua New Guinea include revisions to the care and treatment guidelines to include all populations at high risk for HIV infection. The Government is planning to scale up testing and treatment with the aim of reducing HIV transmission and improving the lives of people living with HIV. Papua New Guinea is also finalizing its draft National HIV Strategy (2018–2022), with crucial inputs from WHO and a range of other stakeholders.

These efforts are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – adopted by the international community in September 2015 to ensure that no one is left behind in efforts to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure health and prosperity of all. The SDGs set 2030 as the target year to end the AIDS epidemic.

WHO is working with Papua New Guinea in facing the challenges presented by HIV and supporting the efforts of the Government to progress towards universal health coverage, which will allow everyone to seek the health services they need without the fear of financial catastrophe.

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