Catastrophe on Australia's doorstep (photo essay)


This photo essay is by Peter Cronau, a producer on the ABC's 4 Corners program. For the accompaning text essay, click here, or on the link at the end of this page.

Papua New Guinea is a nation-state facing many of the problems of a developing nation. However, it is the spread of HIV/AIDS that may be the country's biggest test. The epidemic has the potential to kill thousands, and wreak havoc with the fragile economy.

In Port Moresby General Hospital's unofficial AIDS ward, nurse-in-charge Sister Elizabeth Waken works with dozens of dying patients a month. A nurse for 29 years, Sr Elizabeth struggles to keep up with the increasing numbers being admitted. The ward regularly runs out of bed-sheets, masks, diapers, and even soap and some penicillin medications—patients' families must provide food to their sick loved ones. Papua New Guinea’s health system can’t cope at current levels of the AIDS epidemic—and will be under greater strain as the epidemic relentlessly expands.



Ward 4B in Port Moresby’s General Hospital has become the hospital’s defacto AIDS ward. Many AIDS sufferers in Papua New Guinea become ill with opportunistic diseases such as tuberculosis. Each month the hospital sees 115 new HIV/AIDS cases. The National Health Plan states that if HIV/AIDS continues to rise at the current rate, “70 per cent of the hospital beds in the country would be occupied by AIDS patients in 2010."



Louis Paling spent 25 years in the army. But, admitted to hospital two weeks earlier, so far he hadn’t had a visitor from the services. As well as his illness, he suffers the stigma that many with HIV/AIDS face. On the day of this visit Louis said he was feeling marvellous. Much to the sadness of his family, Louis passed away last month.



Cross infection is a serious risk in the under-staffed and under-resourced Port Moresby General Hospital. Here, a mobile drugs cabinet shared by all presents a clear risk. The impact of this on patients with weak immune systems is obvious. Sister-in-charge of the ward, Sister Elizabeth Waken, says soap is in short supply in the hospital. "I don't have enough bed-sheets, I don't have enough masks. I don't even have enough drugs. Sometimes we run out of crystalline penicillin. Those main common medicines we are always running out."



The opposite ends of the debate—two posters in the AIDS ward, Port Moresby General Hospital. The attitude of some churches is slowing education efforts. The PNG Council of Churches strongly opposed a recent government proposal to decriminalise prostitution that had been intended to facilitate measures for preventing the spread of HIV. Instead the Council advocated giving training and education to women. All agree though that a combination of ABC—Abstinence, Be faithful (to one partner) and Condom use—is what is required; it’s finding the balance between these that has become so controversial.



 Community education and grass roots networking has seen Maura Mea become a shining example to her community of Gorobe, a poor suburb in the outskirts of Port Moresby. Her “Hope for Living” HIV/AIDS project has brought the 3,000 residents of Gorobe information, resources and assistance in reducing violence, sexual assault, and unsafe sexual practices.



Maura decided to come out five years ago as an HIV-positive person, following the deaths of her two babies from the illness. She and her husband Max became the best-known faces of the epidemic in the country. Max died in June and Maura continues her battle, staying healthy with the aid of anti-retroviral medication, which is only now becoming slowly available in PNG.



Children of Gorobe, a poor suburb in Port Moresby, which is retaining hope in the face of the looming AIDS crisis.



"Mary" and "Angelique" ply their sexual trade along what has become known as "the AIDS highway". Stretching 700kms from Lae to deep in the resource-rich interior beyond Mt Hagen, the Highlands Highway provides a fast route for the virus to spread throughout the country. Prostitution along this road is a source of income for hundreds of young women seeking a living, as ties to traditional village life weaken. “I’m scared of the dangers of HIV... two of my colleagues have died of AIDS and that has scared me,” says Mary. “But this work is my lifeline.”



 The Wagi Valley Transport company is the first trucking company in the Western Highlands to have an AIDS education program. With two of their 22 drivers already dying from the disease, and another presently ill, it’s fast becoming an economic necessity. Apollas Yimbak of the Western Highlands Provincial AIDS Council provides education about AIDS and distributes condoms to the drivers.



Some in traditional warrior dress, tribes-people prepare for a reconciliation ceremony near Mt Hagen. Social events like this bring many together and so are high risk settings for the transmission of the AIDS virus. The ceremony ran for a week and 180 pigs were exchanged in settlement of a 30-year conflict with a neighbouring tribe. A splendid time was had by all.




Faces in the crowd. Practice for the reconciliation "sing-sing" is almost as much fun as the real event.



Faces in the crowd.



Faces in the crowd.



Traditional life is changing rapidly, not least for men in the highlands. Polygamy is now not just the privilege of "big men". “In the early days it was just the people who were considered really big leaders would take a second or third wife,” says Sr Rose Bernard, an AIDS worker from nearby Banz. “But now it seems like many men, educated and even uneducated, are taking a second and third wife.”



On her long trips around the remote highlands region of Banz, Sister Rose Bernard, of the Sisters of Notre Dame, counsels individual patients and holds educational community discussions. Here she talks with AIDS sufferer Patrick in Banz in the Western Highlands.




This AIDS education sign on the Highlands “AIDS” Highway in Mt Hagen was funded by AusAID, and is the most visible of the efforts to stem the AIDS epidemic. But with more than 80 per cent of the rural population unable to read or write, such campaigns have not been effective. The Western Highlands province has the highest HIV infection rate by province of origin in the whole country.



Tessie Soi was one of the first AIDS activists in Papua New Guinea. As the senior social worker at Port Moresby’s General Hospital, Tessie saw a need for ongoing support for children orphaned by AIDS. She established the Friends Foundation, and runs groups supporting orphans and their adoptive families. Says Tessie, “If we don’t do anything about orphans of HIV/AIDS, this is going to be our next lot of rascals in Papua New Guinea.” 



At Nine Mile Cemetery outside Port Moresby, the unclaimed bodies of 16 babies lie buried (front row) in a mass grave. Organised recently by Tessie’s Friends Foundation, these mass burials must await fundraising to cover the $70 cost of a coffin and $55 for the ground fee. Whilst not all are AIDS victims, the bodies are often left unclaimed at the city morgue, as families cannot raise the costs, or fear the stigma of claiming an AIDS victim.  




Each stunted bougainvillea plant marks the grave of a baby buried in another large mass burial earlier this year at Port Moresby’s Nine Mile Cemetery. This mass burial was also organised by Friends Foundation to dispose of the bodies of 48 babies that had piled up unclaimed at the hospital morgue.



Downtown Port Moresby on the surface shows all the signs of modest economic growth, but the AIDS crisis is predicted to kill many thousands and to decimate the economy. 


Click here to read the essay that accompanies this piece.  All photos are © Peter Cronau 2006. The payment for this photo essay, and the accompanying article, will be donated to the people depicted in this piece working in Papua New Guinea with AIDS sufferers. The views expressed in this essay are those of Peter Cronau and not necessarily those of the ABC.

The AIDS Angels depicted in the photo essay can be contacted at:

Maura Mea
Hope For Living
PO Box 4868
Boroko, NCD
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Tessie Soi
Friends Foundation
PO Box 4895
Boroko, NCD
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Elizabeth Waken
Sister in Charge, Ward B,
Port Moresby General Hospital
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Sr Rose Bernard,
Sisters of Notre Dame, Banz
PO Box 80
Mt Hagen
Western Highlands
Papua New Guinea



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Existing comments

Sadness is all I felt as I read and looked at the pictures in this article. What is the world coming to? Bodies of dead babies dying from the AIDS virus that's heartbreaking... but to find out further on that despite their innocence in this infliction there is a stigma associated with their suffering. Children are the purest form of humanity, they should not enter this world to suffer this way. Thank you Peter for bringing this tragedy to our attention - these are the issues that need to be brought to the attention of the press of the world at large. In you shines hope that justice may be served eventually.

Delphine Bosquet | 04 October 2006  

I thought this was a brilliant piece. Truly moving. This tragedy on our doorstep is something that we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to do something about. Brilliant work Peter. Good to see such a long piece in
Eureka Street as well

Rodney Graves | 09 October 2006  

Stunning photos. What a tragedy unfolding. Will Eureka Street be unlocking the essay attached to this article? I am not a subscriber and would very much like to read it.

andrew johnson | 09 October 2006  

A harrowing piece.

Aurora Lowe | 09 October 2006  

The second last picture of the stunted bouganville plants reminds me of a trip I took to sachsenhausen concentration camp, on the outskirts of berlin. Each stone, out in the great field of the camp, marked a bunkhouse where people had lived crammed together lives. It stunned me, as this photo essay has done.

Rosalie Martino | 10 October 2006  

It's scandalous that a neighbour of a rich country like Australia should have its health system so poorly resourced. Australia could remedy these deficiencies (for East Timor too). It wouldn't be painless; it would be the sort of effort we'd make in wartime, but we should do it.

Gavan Breen | 10 October 2006  

I love the faces in the crowd. So hard to believe there is so much sadness in the lives of the Papuans.

Michelle Atkins | 10 October 2006  

Hi Peter, good on you, great work.
I think PNG should declare AIDS enemy of the state, DECLARE TRIBAL WAR ON AIDS Sore ol wantok blong me

Rex Rumakiek | 20 October 2006  

Thank you, it still does not recover from the opening statements related to the leaders, failing state/economy or the interview with the raskals that set the secene for 4 corners.

Peter Barter | 06 November 2006  

How can I help

Caroline Morris | 16 December 2006  

Not being Australian, but being a PNG-lover and long-time resident there as a researcher in the fields of HIV, AIDS, STDs and sexual health and behaviour, I can perhaps more openly state my dismay at once again Australians (journalists this time) misconstruing risk and playing right into the hands of conservative forces. Once again, you've fingered the wrong targets, invented terrorists where they don't exist, been misogynistic in your approach and failed to ask more fundamental questions, for example, the attitudes of church leaders toward healthy sexual praxis, specifically in the snippet with Sister Rose, who is a good and decent person, but who continues to foment sex-negativity. Implying, too, that condom usage in her area is at all open or at high levels is just wrong. Although there are brothels in the country, the Magila Club isn't one of them. Going after the Health Minister was way too easy a target, too, even though it made for captivating television, for no one expects expertise from such Ministers with portfolio. There were many good aspects to the piece, but overall, I'd have to say that it made things worse, not better.

Lawrence Hammar | 06 January 2007  

hi, love the work you are doing in moresby, my father was Dr.g.j.Sarkozy
at your hospital in the late 70s
would love to hear from any one who worked with him regards mike sarkozy

mike sarkozy | 26 April 2007  

Someone has to take some responsibility for failed policies on HIV-AIDS in PNG despite what Lawrence Hammar in his comment says about not expecting any expertise from the PNG Health Minister. It is as insulting to the minister, as it is ignorant of the facts. In the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy that PNG lives with, the buck DOES stop with the minister. If he turns out to be ill-informed, incompetent, out-witted by his departmental staff or outgunned by his parliamentary colleagues, then it is vital that the media does NOT just shut up and give him an easy time because he is a 'good bloke'. His department of health, through bureaucratic inefficiency most likely, has slowed the distribution of anti-retrovirals resulting in the unnecessary deaths of God knows how many innocents. With my own eyes I have seen people dying wretchedly in hospitals that could not obtain these drugs, which were sitting stacked on Port Moresby warehouse shelves. While the free drugs sat in the warehouse, only those patients with enough Kina could purchase anti-retrovirals privately.
I am only a journalist. I cannot but tell stories about injustices I see, and then ask those in power why they don't try harder to solve the problems. I am in a privileged position to demand answers on behalf of the voiceless, the poor, the powerless, the ill.
On the other criticisms of Lawrence's of Sister Rose, I'd suggest he take up the condom issue with the Pope, who has the power but is unwilling to free-up his servants in the field to more openly educate and distribute condoms. Within those constraints, it seems to me Sister Rose is doing what she can.
And of his suggestion that the club we visited was not a brothel, well, if Lawrence visits the club on their weekly 'Pacific Night' and he is lucky enough to win the night's prize, he might find the girl he wins may have a different view.
His criticisms of us “inventing terrorists where none exist” is more puzzling – perhaps he channel surfed on to CNN for a minute. However the accusation of misogyny must be addressed – perhaps Lawrence could contact some of the four women and their organisations listed above to see if he can find anyone who agrees with him.
To the poor reader who has persisted this far, I would commend to you the work of the four women listed above and suggest you choose one or two of them and provide some direct support to them in any way you see fit – as have many people who have seen our program and read this essay. Thank you.

Peter Cronau | 23 August 2007  

This is truly a case of Cry the Beloved Country. How can one ignore Australia's closest neighbour? Home to myself and my family from 1968-1979 our hearts and minds are still a part of a stranglehold that the beauty and splendour of this amazing country has on any soul who lives there. Expatriates we were but our tears are real and our childhood memories are just of Papua New Guinea our homeland. I urge all expatriates who lived in PNG to actively contribute in some helpful way, use your imaginations, any resources available to you and channel funds to ease the desperation and urgency of a people who the west largely transformed from a stone age existence to a "modern" disease infected society now dying at their mercy. May the voice of your singing people be heard in the heavens and may God show his mercy to you all.

Linda Larsen (nee Johns) | 16 February 2008  

We have an electronic treatment for HIV/AIDS which was effective in 70% of patients treated in Angola. Our results were confirmed by the Statistics Department at The University of Melbourne. We are interested in setting up research projects wherever we can get a feed back of CD4, CD8 & viral load levels. The treatment is extremely cost effective as a $300 machine can be shared by 100 people using a small amount of electricity. Please let me know if you are interested.
Sincerely, Noel Campbell.

Prof. Noel Campbell | 09 February 2009  

June 2013 update: HIV/AIDS epidemic now beginning to be reigned in. ''It is good news. We now know that this is a concentrated epidemic, not a generalised epidemic. The disaster that was predicted hasn't happened,'' says Dr Geoff Clark, a former WHO official who is now the Australian Agency for International Development's program director for health and HIV in PNG. ''The surveillance data now is much better than we were working with a few years ago when there were fears this could spread to 5 per cent of the population or more.'' While the spread of the virus is being checked, its management still poses a formidable public health challenge. Almost 12,000 adults and children were undergoing treatment last year, compared with about 9500 in 2011. The national infection rate is estimated to have stabilised at about 0.83 per cent of the population, with higher rates in some highlands provinces and in Port Moresby's National Capital District. About 1.4 per cent of the ''sexually active'' population (aged 15-49) in the Western Highlands is HIV-positive. But in poverty-stricken PNG, your donations are still needed and welcomed. Please check the following if you wish to help the Sisters in Mt Hagen.

Peter Cronau, Journalist, ABC | 27 October 2016  

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