East Timor: UN mission helps launch HIV/AIDS awareness campaign

East Timor: UN mission helps launch HIV/AIDS awareness campaign

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The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) today helped launch a territory-wide campaign to raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS and avoid the kind of epidemic that has crippled other developing nations.

"The United Nations, in partnership with the East Timorese transitional government, is fully committed to develop necessary programmes to address the causes and consequences of HIV infection in East Timor," UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello said in a statement.

"Indeed, East Timor has a unique opportunity to prevent an epidemic of HIV/AIDS, but only if all the key stakeholders act together in a coordinated manner," he added. "This is the only way to make sure that this epidemic - which is already ravaging other parts of Southeast Asia - will not take a strong hold in East Timor."

According to East Timor's Vice Minister for Health, João Martins, the preliminary estimate on the rate of HIV infection in East Timor is 0.64 per cent of people of reproductive age. In comparison, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar have HIV rates of more than 1 per cent, according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

While East Timor has so far avoided an epidemic, both officials warned that several social factors might exacerbate the spread of HIV in the soon-to-be-independent nation: massive social dislocation, cross-border migration, high unemployment, illiteracy among the rural population, and low awareness about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The campaign, which is spearheaded by UNTAET's Office of Communications and Public Information and the Ministry of Health, employs UNTAET's television, radio and publications units to promote general awareness on how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The drive will also promote ongoing HIV/AIDS-related initiatives by the government, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGO). A national HIV/AIDS working group has been set up and is advising the government on HIV/AIDS-related matters.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry has also initiated priority, short-term interventions among marginalized youth and sex workers. The stakeholders are now working on an HIV testing and counselling policy; a national HIV/AIDS situation assessment and a national strategic plan. A National AIDS Conference will be held later this month.

Both the Vice-Minister and Mr. Vieira de Mello applauded the Catholic Church for its cooperation in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The influential church has established a programme to raise HIV/AIDS awareness through health clinics run by the international NGO Caritas.