Australia Joins Church Groups in Fight Against Aids

Australia is joining with seven faith-based agencies to combat an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the half-island nation of Papua New Guinea, aid workers said Tuesday. According to the Associated Press, Australia's international development agency will provide 25 million Australian dollars (19.4 million US dollars) over the next five years to support efforts of church groups to fight the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea.

"Over 96 percent of Papua New Guineans identify themselves as members of the Christian church," said Sue Graves, the director of the HIV/AIDS task force for Australia's international development agency AusAID. "This means that faith-based agencies play a huge part in the lives of Papua New Guineans."

Graves told reporters on Tuesday that church groups are in a unique position to "alter the course" of Papua New Guinea's HIV epidemic.

"The availability of condoms itself is not the biggest issue," she said. "Many women are not in a position to negotiate safe sex."

While condoms remain a key strategy in AIDS prevention, Graves said education was a bigger issue.

Catholic welfare group Caritas Australia, one of the seven groups working with the PNG Aids Council to combat the disease, says women's rights and poverty are key issues in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea. According to reports, the disease is spreading most rapidly among girls aged 14 to 19.

James Isbister, a spokesman for the Catholic aid agency Caritas Australia, said though his organization won't distribute condoms, it would focus instead on educating the public about high-risk behavior.

"Caritas doesn't itself support the distribution of condoms,” Isbister said, as reported by AP, “but they're very clear on ensuring that communities and individuals have informed choice."

Papua New Guinea, which in 2001 became the fourth country in the Asia-Pacific region to experience a generalized HIV epidemic, is home to around 4.8 million people. Of that, official estimates say 16,000 people are living with the disease while unofficial figures run as high as 50,000.