Fri, 05 Dec 2003

HIV/AIDS, a clear danger for Papuans

Nethy Dharma Somba, The Jakarta Post, Jayapura, Papua

The number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province, has reached an alarming level.

The province has a 2.3 million-strong population, and the number of people living with the potentially life-threatening virus, according to the latest data, is 1,018.

The figure is second only to that of the capital, Jakarta, which has recorded 1,197 people living with HIV/AIDS out of its 10 million population.

Dr. Gunawan Ongkokusumo of the USAID-sponsored Stop AIDS Action Program identified illicit sexual relations as the major cause of the spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua.

Citing recent data, he said a staggering 94 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS had contracted the virus through unsafe sex. Other major causes were needle sharing among drug users and intrauterine transmission.

Gunawan said most HIV/AIDS carriers in Papua were people who had frequent sexual contact with commercial sex workers (62 percent), the wives or husbands of those who often had sexual contact with people of affected communities, particularly commercial sex workers (25 percent), commercial sex workers (11 percent), drug users who shared needles (1.6 percent) and homosexuals (0.4 percent).

Tahi Butar-Butar, acting executive director of the Public Health Development Foundation (YPKM), said the high rate of people infected with HIV/AIDS in Papua was attributable to changing cultural values.

In the past, people who had premarital sex or extramarital sex would receive stiff punishment from the community, including beatings, expulsion from society and the death sentence.

As Papua developed into a modern society, the punishments were gradually lifted.

Free sex, for example, is now only subject to a fine.

"As people become more and more wealthy as an impact of national development, fines are no longer a problem for them. Fines only will not deter people from committing unsafe free sex," he said.

An American researcher, Leslie Butt, assisted by Gardha Numbery and Jack Morin from Cenderawasih University in Jayapura, found in a recent survey that male Papuans are highly sexually active. The survey found that over 30 percent of male respondents admitted they had at least 10 sexual partners during the course of their lives, and 25 percent had more than 50 partners.

The majority of respondents acknowledged that they had experienced sexual contact before the age of 15.

Unfortunately, the high rate active sexual behavior was not met with an equal rate in the use of condoms.

The awareness of Papuans to use condoms is very low.

Butt found that, out of the 175 respondents of the survey, 149 said they never used condoms. Several respondents admitted that they did not know condoms could protect them from HIV/AIDS, while others argued that they were reluctant to use condoms, because condoms would decrease sexual pleasure.

The low awareness in regards condoms has thus contributed greatly to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua.

In order to raise people's awareness on the importance of condoms, the Papua Provincial Commission on AIDS Eradication is currently deliberating a bylaw that will oblige proprietors of entertainment establishments to provide condoms.

The commission is also actively campaigning in the media on the dangers of unprotected sex.

The first HIV/AIDS case in Papua emerged 10 years ago in Merauke. The virus then spread across the province, and commercial sex workers were blamed as being the source of the epidemic.