AIDS nightmare looms in Indonesia's Papua
( 2003-09-16 15:11) (Agencies)
Tucking into bowls of meatball soup and sipping tea, the nine teenage girls look like friends swapping gossip on a Saturday night in the highland town of Wamena in Indonesia's remote Papua province.
All have heard of AIDS,they know how it is spread and they are scared. But they are a minority in this giant province nearly the size of France, where health experts say many people have never heard of the disease and few know how to use a condom.
To make matters worse, Papua already has one-third of Indonesia's recorded HIV/AIDS cases, yet less than one percent of its population. Some experts fear five percent of the province could be HIV positive, and warn of an African-style epidemic in an area where hospital facilities are rudimentary at best.
"Papuan men say they wouldn't be satisfied if they used a condom," said Gustim Pigmo, at 18 one of the oldest in the group, pulling a wool cap tight over her head to keep out the highland cold. The youngest girl was 14.
With their tight curly hair and adorned with tribal jewelry, the girls looked like they should be on the pages of National Geographic,not getting ready to hustle for sex.
Only last week, the United Nations warned Asian leaders they were ignoring a looming African-style HIV/AIDS crisis.
Aggravating the situation in Papua, health experts said, was a belief that Jakarta introduced the disease in the 1990s to try to wipe out the indigenous population in one of the country's two separatist hot spots.
Papua has Indonesia's highest prevalence of AIDS even though it recorded its first HIV case just 10 years ago and testing facilities exist only in big centers.
Health experts said little testing for example has been done since 2000 in Wamena -- hub of the Baliem Valley where some tribes only emerged from the Stone Age decades ago.
"The situation is bad and I would say getting worse," said Chris Green, from the Spiritia Foundation, an HIV/AIDS non-governmental organization in Jakarta.
"Some estimates put the number of people infected at five percent of the population, which is very high even by African proportions. ... We're looking at the potential for a community, or a number of communities, to almost disappear," he said.
Health experts said the disease was spreading rapidly due to several factors -- promiscuity, rituals in some Papuan tribes where partner swapping takes place, little foreplay which increased the risk of abrasions, poor education about AIDS and a lack of condoms.
Few places could be as remote as poverty-stricken Papua, home to two million people, including hundreds of tribes that speak 250 different languages. Yet the disease has penetrated deep into the jungles.
Papua is largely Christian or animist, unlike Indonesia which is mainly Muslim. Wamena is 2,200 miles east of Jakarta and the Baliem valley can only be reached by plane.
One man trying to raise awareness is Gunawan Ingkokusumo, head of the USAID-funded AksiStopAIDS network in Papua.
His figures show that as of December, there were 1,263 recorded HIV/AIDS cases in Papua against 3,782 nationally. He said the rate of HIV infection could be five percent.
The view among many Papuans that Indonesia had intentionally brought the disease in has made calm debate unlikely and muted the response from local leaders, experts said.
Ingkokusumo said the reluctance to address the issue was the key obstacle to action. Several high-profile community leaders interviewed by Reuters accused Jakarta of introducing the disease.
Green said there were similarities with parts of Africa, with migrant populations working near mining and logging operations. Thousands of soldiers are also spread throughout Papua.
Silvia Tamahiwu, who runs a small aid group in Wamena that has worked with young prostitutes, estimated 100 girls were selling sex in the town of 15,000 people.
As the nine girls finishing eating, some said they feared they had HIV. But they had to keep working for the money.
"We are all scared, but what can we do," said Mariee Kiwo, squeezing a wooden
Christian cross around her neck.
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