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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 19396


Senator McLUCAS (1:40 PM) —I rise this afternoon in the matter of public importance debate to talk about issues of health in our region. This morning, as you were, Madam Acting Deputy President Crowley, I was fortunate to meet with representatives of the World Health Organisation as a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Population and Development. I think you will agree it was a very impressive group of delegates, including Mr Paul Van Look, director of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research for the World Health Organisation; Mr Wang Yifei, area manager, Asia and the Pacific World Health Organisation; Professor Jock Findlay; Dr Megan Passey; and Professor John Hearn. These people gave us an excellent presentation, focusing on the role Australia plays in health research and activity in the Asia-Pacific region.

I would like to thank the representatives from the World Health Organisation for their presentation and for the insight that they provided us into reproductive health issues in this region. Their message was succinct in my view. A total of 60 per cent of the population of the world lives in our region. More than 50 per cent of the deaths of women as a result of childbirth or complications post-partum are in our region, and 50 per cent of all sexually transmitted infections are contracted here in our region. It is clear from their presentation that whilst we as Australians are making an important contribution to the health of the region, we can do, and in my mind should be doing, much more. The shift of the focus of our assistance some three to four years ago when Australia completely defunded the human reproductive program and curtailed support to that of the safe motherhood program has limited our influence in the broader range of reproductive health issues in this region. It is about that issue that I wish to make my comments today.

Over many years I have had an interest in the issue of HIV and AIDS in Australia. I have been the patron of the Queensland AIDS Council in Cairns for some five years and take this opportunity to pay tribute to the good work of the Queensland AIDS Council, both in Cairns and across our state. In the lead-up to World AIDS Day on 1 December, it is timely that we recognise we still face enormous challenges in dealing with HIV and AIDS. This is the case here in Australia, especially in the indigenous community and, importantly, in the nearest parts of our region. Recent media reports have alerted the community to the fact that the threat of HIV and AIDS in Papua New Guinea, and potentially in West Papua, is a growing one. It is difficult to obtain absolute data on the incidence of HIV and AIDS in Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, not because the data is hidden but because it is simply not being collected due to the lack of health infrastructure and money. However, we have some data that should encourage policy makers to exert more effort in this area.

Papua New Guinea has a population of about 4.7 million people. In 1999, 2,342 people had been identified as being HIV positive. These figures show an alarming 30 per cent increase in detection of HIV in a single year. However, it is important to note that information is only being routinely collected in Port Moresby. It is also noted that the figure can most likely be attributed to more frequent testing procedures at the Port Moresby hospital. The Cairns Base Hospital is treating an increasing number of HIV positive people living or working in Papua New Guinea but it should be noted that it is only the relatively wealthy people who can afford to access treatment here in Australia. Of the population of 4.7 million, only 16 per cent of Papua New Guineans are urbanised. Many live in extremely isolated places with limited health infrastructure and communication. More than 60 per cent of the population do not have access to any news media and more than half have limited literacy skills. There are more than 700 different cultures in Papua New Guinea, speaking one-third of the world's languages. I hope this data provides the Senate with an indication of the enormity of the problem faced by the people of Papua New Guinea and their leadership.

In March this year the Anglican Church of PNG released a report entitled HIV-AIDs: the situation in Papua New Guinea, which indicates that rates of infection have continued to escalate dramatically, entering a critical phase in 1999. The report indicates that while there is limited infection in some of the provinces there are some communities where the numbers of infected people are as high as one in five. Further, the report indicates that one in three women in PNG will be infected with HIV within a decade if the epidemic is not checked and that life expectancy will decrease by 25 per cent by the year 2010. For women, the life expectancy age at the moment is 51 years and it will decrease to 38; and for men, the life expectancy age is 53, decreasing to 39. There is a much higher incidence of transmission from mother to child than occurs internationally, and most infections are in the heterosexual community. HIV-AIDS is the leading cause of death in the Port Moresby hospital. I am also advised that as of February this year there is one HIV-AIDS counsellor in Papua New Guinea.

It is important to remember that it only takes 20 minutes in a banana boat to travel from the western province of the Papua New Guinea mainland to the outer islands of the Torres Strait, and travel between these people is regular and part of traditional life. Health services in the Torres Strait are immeasurably better than those in the western province, and it is a reality that many PNG nationals are having to be treated in the Torres Strait, mainly for tuberculosis. I am quoting now from the Anglican Church report on HIV-AIDS. It states:

Over the past 18 months several provinces have demonstrated a sharp increase in the number of HIV cases detected. Among the most significant were Sitnbu, Western, Enga, and Manus Provinces where the prevalence rate per 100,000 population has risen sharply.

The report goes on to say:

Papua New Guinea's vulnerability to the HIV-AIDS epidemic is directly related to the various social, economic and cultural dynamics that define the country's development context. Factors such as the poor health status of the population, lack of infrastructure and basic services, limited education and employment opportunities, mobility and urbanisation, and gender disparities all contribute to conditions in which HIV/AIDS flourishes. In addition, all these issues impact on the country's capacity to respond effectively to the epidemic.

Australia has an enviable record in dealing with HIV and AIDS. It is to our credit that we did not let our personal prejudices get in the way of dealing with this potentially enormous epidemic when we faced it over 10 years ago.

I am aware that the Queensland government has met with its Papua New Guinea counterparts to develop an appropriate response to the situation in Papua New Guinea, and I congratulate it for that. I am also aware that the federal government has initiated a response in the light of the alarming statistics that we have heard from Papua New Guinea, but I am concerned about the level of that response. I understand that the federal government has allocated $250,000 in response to those sorts of figures and the sort of data that we heard here earlier today. This $250,000 will be allocated to fund five research projects. I cannot question the sorts of projects that they arethey are obviously very useful and very well directed—but I can question the level of contribution, which is not enough. This $250,000 is a mere drop in the bucket for the people of Papua New Guinea and we have a responsibility as a community to do this better.

In raising these issues, I do not wish to be seen as sensationalist or as a scaremonger. It is important that senators' awareness of these issues be raised, especially senators who come from southern areas and who may not have visited our only border region. I ask that senators consider these issues so that they can advocate on behalf of the people of the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea and so that they can advocate, within their communities and within their parties, a greater role for Australia in assisting countries in our region to deal with the critical issue of HIV and AIDS.