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Catastrophe on Australia's doorstep (Best articles of 2006 special edition)

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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

Thanks for the report on such a sad fact of current day PNG. Myself and six other members of the ETU NSW resently worked in Port Morsby general hospital for a week, installing new lights in the childrens wards. Personally I just coped with the fact of all the gravly ill moms and their babies.

adam wardrope | 31 May 2009