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A friend for victims of HIV in PNG

September 29, 2010

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Tania Nugent: Papua New Guinea has the highest incidence of HIV anywhere in the Pacific. Two percent of all adults are now HIV positive - that's around 64-thousand people. Here in Papua New Guinea, it's wrapped up in cultural confusion, poverty, rapid population growth. And in its wake are the mothers and children who have contracted the virus - who carry the stigma attached to being infected, the burden of being orphaned and the sorrow of losing a child to the disease.


Tessie Soi - Social worker: I saw the first case in 1987 I was called up only for professor to tell me that this fellow has got AIDS he has to go home to die, so I went in and arranged for this person to go home to die.

Tania Nugent: More than 20 years after discharging PNG's first reported AIDS patient from the Port Moresby General Hospital, Tessie Soi has been looking in to the human faces of its spread.

Tessie Soi: We were getting a lot of people being told by doctors that they were positive and they didn't know where to go.

Tania Nugent: Tessie found herself assisting patients at her own expense until 2000, when her informal charity became official - she launched the Friends' Foundation.

Tessie Soi: I really want to be able to give that person that has tested positive an opportunity to live as normal person.

Tania Nugent: Along with the rise in patients, Tessie witnessed the glue of PNG's society coming unstuck - the wantok system- where extended family and clan members look after each other.

Tessie Soi: You know how Papua New Guinea we have the wantok system, that helps the medical, they say that, but you and I know that the wantok system is breaking. It's been breaking since 1990, when we have had children leaving their parents here at the hospital.

Every human being has the right to be given a decent burial. Back in 1998 I was burying adults, a lot of adults. Because there was no space in the morgue they had all these little bundles. They said they were babies. What do you mean babies, who is not burying their babies? That's not right for me, I said. I buried 41 of them, I didn't stop until last year. We have buried over 350 babies and children who have been left in the morgue.

My main focus now is to prevent HIV from mother to child, or parent to child and I'm taking care of orphans. She just lost her mum on Saturday.

Helen John - Friends' Foundation beneficiary: Mi kam long stap hausik na ol kisim blad bilong em na ol tok olsem pikinini bilong yu I gat binatang. (I came to the hospital and they took some blood and said your child has got a virus.)

Tania Nugent: Like many women who contract the virus in PNG, Helen found out she was HIV positive through the birth of her first child. Although her second child was born negative, extreme poverty meant she had no choice but to take the risk of breast feeding her healthy new born daughter.

Helen John: Em stap four months, na ol nurse ia ol kisim fest blad test bilong em ia, result ol tokim mi nau ol tok rausim em long susu so em mi hamas na mi rausim em long susu. (I fed her for four months and the nurse took her first blood test and told me the results and said take her of the breast. So I was happy and stopped breastfeeding her.)

Tania Nugent: Friends' Foundation fundraises to buy formula for mothers like Helen. The charity is supported by many of Tessie's family. Her sister and her son conduct weekly group therapy sessions at the hospital.

Instructor: Yu tupela wokim na pikinini kamap. Yu save. So papa tu mas karim dispela burden olsem na karim pikinin I kam. (The two of you made the child. Do you understand? So fathers to must carry the burden and bring the children here.)

Rory Sitapai - Friends' Foundation: Many mothers we have seen, especially the ones that came are new mothers and they haven't really exposed their status to their families, thus they also live so much emotional stress and problems so this avenue allows them to know that they are not the only ones, and also to try and learn from others who have faced similar problems that they have to.

Helen John: Mipela no toksave long haus lain oslem mi na pikinini na papa bilong mipela gat dispel kain. Em mi tupela haitim. Olsem, nau em siti em olsem taim yu tokave long sik bilong yu long narapela em ol bai les long yu. Ol bai no inap bai stap wantaim yu. (We haven't told the people at home that me and the children and their father have this. Now in this city when you reveal your sickness to others they don't like you they won't be with you. )

Tania Nugent: With her brave decision to speak out on camera, Helen hopes she can do her bit to break down that stigma.

Helen John: Mi bai wari bilong samtim, mi bai wari long narapela samting, mi bai wari long kaikai na family laif bilong mi bai bagarap olgeta, mi bai wari i go em bai sotim laif. (I worry about this, I worry about that. I worry about food and my family life breaking down all together. Over time, if you worry away, you will shorten your life.)
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