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Australia to Raise Regional Response to HIV, AIDS

Australia is to spend an extra $350 million to fight HIV and AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, where an estimated eight million people are infected. Papua New Guinea will be a particular focus, where infection rates are worse than they were in parts of southern Africa when HIV/AIDS began to take hold there more than a decade ago. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia is worried about a looming health disaster on its doorstep. The government in Canberra estimates that over the next two decades HIV and AIDS will have killed one and a half million people in Indonesia and more than 300,000 in Papua New Guinea.

So it is increasing its commitment to the struggle against the virus and has increased funding by $350 million.

Special attention will be paid to Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbor, with a high infection rate.

Peter Barter is Papua New Guinea's Health Minister. He has been in Sydney for a ministerial conference and says his government faces a tough challenge.

"It's a very diverse country, both in cultures and terrain," Barter explained. "And of course when you start talking about how you can curb the spread of HIV, you've got to take the actual diversity into consideration. We've got to change behavioral patterns and many parts of Papua New Guinea at present you can have anything up to five or six wives, and up to 20 children. Obviously we have to change that behavior. And it's a cultural matter and it's going to take some time to be able to do it."

Papua New Guinea has the highest incidence of HIV in the Pacific region. Officials say almost two per cent of the population is infected, but charities believe this is a gross under-reporting of the problem.

Infection is mostly transmitted through heterosexual intercourse. Groups considered most at risk are truck drivers, sex workers and soldiers.

Education about preventing the spread of HIV is also seen as inadequate.

The new money from Australia is to be spent across the region on disease prevention and testing, as well as the treatment and care of patients. Funds are also allocated to research.

It is estimated that 40 million people around the world are infected with HIV and AIDS with eight million in the Asia Pacific region.

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