HIV/AIDS is a '"storm gathering offshore" in the South Pacific and is about to erupt in Pacific communities in a devastating way unless prevention and support programmes are strengthened, United Nations AIDS experts said today.
HIV/AIDS has already erupted in Papua, New Guinea, and the threat that it could expand in New Zealand and in neighbouring Pacific regions is bigger than ever before said the UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) just days before the first international conference on the disease opens in New Zealand.
"The global HIV epidemic has no boundaries," UNAIDS Regional Director, Prasada Rao said. "Pacific Island countries face an urgent challenge to prevent new infections and reinforce HIV and AIDS education programmes" in the region, he added.
In New Zealand, there are more people living with HIV than ever before, and if the trend continues it is estimated that 2005 could be a record year in infections, said the agency.
More than 450 people are expected to attend the 25 to 28 October joint programme by UNAIDS and the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) being held in Auckland, where key themes will include challenging the silence around AIDS, finding ways to reduce homophobia, encouraging churches to take a leadership role, and working with the realities of the sexual practices in the society, the agency said.
"This is the first time that an international HIV and AIDS conference has concentrated on the Pacific region," NZAF Executive Director Rachael Le Mesurier said. "It could not have come at a better time," she added, and should be "a clarion call to political, community, traditional, and church leaders throughout the Pacific to unite in the fight against this most deadly epidemic."
The conference will feature a strong indigenous voice and will provide a safe forum for many Pacific people living with HIV/AIDS to speak about how the epidemic is affecting them, their families and their countries, UNAIDS said.