Pacific island countries are vulnerable to HIV spread. survey shows

News release

Noumea, New Caledonia, 14 June 2006—Rising numbers of sexually transmitted infections in Pacific Island countries threaten to spark the spread of HIV in the region, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned today.

Surveys of HIV, other sexually transmitted infections and risky sexual behaviour conducted in six sentinel countries – Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu – indicated a ripe scenario for the spread of HIV in the Pacific.

With the exception of Papua New Guinea, Pacific Island countries have low HIV prevalence rates or no cases. However, that situation may drastically change unless urgent measures are taken to control sexually transmitted infections. The study showed that these are common in the Pacific –the average rate of chlamydia reached as high as 29% in one of the country’s surveyed, and could serve as an easy entry point for HIV.

Furthermore, risky sexual behaviour among people travelling between the Pacific and neighbouring countries with high rates of HIV, such as Papua New Guinea and some Asian countries, has raised concern about the escalation of HIV.

“The fact that no HIV infections were found among those tested is good news and probably means that HIV is not yet widely present in the population,” said Dr Jimmie Rodgers, Director-General of SPC. “However, there is no room for complacency. HIV is here and here to stay and the conditions are present for it to spread rapidly."

The surveys showed that Pacific Island countries are vulnerable to HIV because:

The WHO Representative in the South Pacific, Dr Chen Ken, said that there are still opportunities to prevent HIV from spreading in the region. “The ABCD approach can help prevent the spread of HIV: abstain from sex; be faithful; condom promotion; and do other things apart from penetrative sex. Special emphasis should also be put on the control of sexually transmitted infections.”

  • knowledge on how HIV is transmitted is still limited;
  • unsafe sex is extremely prevalent, particularly among the young;
  • a high proportion of people have multiple and casual partners.

Dr Chen said social marketing strategies are needed to increase access to and acceptance of condoms in the community, as well as to identify novel approaches to raise awareness of risk behaviours in at-risk and vulnerable groups. “In addition, participatory approaches are required to gain trust and to work with people to assist them to change their behaviour and reduce risk, including making access to counselling and testing more widely available,” he said.

Dr Rodgers noted: “Voluntary confidential counselling and testing need to be made available to people through mainstream health clinics. People also need to be more aware of how important it is to know their HIV status. But even then, above all they need to feel it is safe and normal to be tested for HIV like any other health issue.”

Dr Chen also emphasised the need for more involvement of sectors such as education, trade and industry, employment and social services, as well as nongovernmental organisations and the private sector. “The prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections is not only a health issue, it is also a political, economic and social issue, and it needs to be tackled from a multisectoral angle,” he said.

“We need to reduce fear of HIV in the community and the consequent stigma and discrimination attached to it," said Dr Rodgers. “In communities with a negative attitude towards HIV, people are afraid of being tested or making use of other services that could help them to change their risky behaviour or to access treatment and care.”

During 2004 and 2005, 4305 people, including seafarers, pregnant women, young people, police and the military took part in the surveys. The surveys will help target prevention strategies against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and strengthen surveillance. A second round of surveys will be conducted next year.

The surveys were funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, with the support of SPC, the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific and the University of New South Wales.

For more information, please contact Nicole Gooch, HIV & STI Communications Officer, SPC Ph: (687) 26 20 00, email: nicoleg@spc.int The report on “Second Generation Surveillance Surveys of HIV, STIs and risk behaviours in six Pacific Island countries (2004-2005)” can be downloaded from: www.spc.int/hiv/ or http://www.wpro.who.int/health_topics/hiv_infections/

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