JAKARTA, 18 June 2013 (IRIN) - Efforts to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in the Indonesian provinces of Papua, which has among the country's highest rates of infection, and West Papua are making steady though slow progress, say aid workers and government officials.
"People there believed that HIV/AIDS was a curse from God, but that's no longer the general perception," Setyo Warsono, a spokesman for the government's National AIDS Commission (KPA), told IRIN.
Since 2005, reported HIV infections have increased in both these provinces annually, with 535 new cases reported in West Papua and 3,028 in Papua in 2012, where infection rates have outpaced the national average. In Papua new cases more than doubled from 687 in 2009 to 2,499 in 2010.
Tanah Papua (a local term that includes both Papua and West Papua provinces), 2,000km east of Jakarta, has some of the lowest levels of human development of Indonesia's 33 provinces, according to the government.
According to a 2012 report from the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Tanah Papua was experiencing a low-level HIV epidemic, with a prevalence of 2.4 percent among the general population (versus a national average of 0.3 percent). About 30,000 people (22,210 in Papua and 7,160 in West Papua) are estimated to be living with HIV today.
Reaching them early
HIV prevalence among people aged 15-24 in Tanah Papua is 3 percent.
In 2010 the Papua provincial government, in partnership with UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), introduced a decree to integrate HIV education in schools in Papua Province, which included curriculum development, teacher training and HIV policy support at the district level.
So far, 876 teachers in 58 secondary schools and 47 primary schools have received the training.
"From zero teachers in schools teaching HIV awareness, we've increased the level markedly," said Margaret Sheehan, UNICEF's chief of office in Jayapura, the capital of Papua Province. "But there's still a degree of reluctance from teachers to talk about how HIV can be transmitted through sex. More sensitization work still needs to take place so teachers feel more comfortable."
UNICEF plans to incorporate HIV education into an upcoming training programme for teachers in rural areas in partnership with the Papua and West Papua governments.
But with 38 percent of children aged 7-15 out of school, and the highest provincial proportion of out-of-school children nationwide, aid workers are looking elsewhere to reach youths.
UNICEF is offering life-skills training at youth and Protestant church clubs in a part of the country where church leaders are esteemed in the community and most youths participate in church groups.
The Papua provincial KPA is using radio, TV and a well-known local football team (given young people's love of football in the province) to disseminate HIV education.
Accessing remote areas
Caritas Australia is working with a local NGO to train volunteer peer educators, as well as broadcasting HIV prevention messages through the radio and concerts in the Papuan district of Merauke.
For the NGO's programme coordinator in Indonesia, Terry Russell, poor rural infrastructure has been one of the biggest barriers to spreading HIV education.
"Remote villages have no mobile phone contact, so pre-visits are necessary, and often roads have worsened due to weather or a bridge being down, so the process can be very time-consuming," he said.
In 2011, the government set up a unit in Papua and West Papua to accelerate infrastructure development in Papua's remote areas, where more than one million indigenous Papuans live, according to local media.
Though slow, progress has been steady, say aid workers.
"In 2005, people with HIV/AIDS in Merauke were shunned by their families, but now many more are accepted and many more are willing to undergo HIV/AIDS testing," said Russell. In 2008 some 5,000 people in Tanah Papua were tested for HIV; as of 31 May this year, that figure has risen to 31,443.
UNICEF's Sheehan said HIV messages on government-sponsored billboards and TV ads are now clearer. Whereas in the past there were billboards of leaders saying "We don't want HIV", posters now feature youths with HIV-prevention messages.
According to the KPA's Warsono, as of 2013 the government has set up local commissions to continue raising awareness about HIV in 19 of Papua's 29 districts, and in all of West Papua's 13 districts.