Thursday, October 13, 2016

Australia cuts HIV funding in PNG, future of thousands living with HIV uncertain

UP TO 10,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV) face an uncertain future and thousands of women and children will be exposed to health risks after the Australian Government announced it will discontinue funding for recipients of HIV and reproductive health grants across Papua New Guinea.

The lives of the PLHIV are prolonged when they go on antiretroviral therapy (ART) as it suppresses the virus and stops the progression of the disease that leads to full blown AIDS. However, access to that life-saving treatment will end after the Australian High Commission announced its intention to discontinue funding for recipients of HIV and reproductive health grants.

The discontinuation of funding will mean women and children loosing access to critical reproductive and child healthcare services, especially in rural and remote communities.

The Post-Courier has obtained a confidential Australian Government Briefing Note titled "The Potential Impact of Australian Government Funded Grant Closures on HIV and Reproductive Health Services in Papua New Guinea", which was prepared on October 7, 2016 and contains details on 19 NGOs and civil society organisations that will be affected by the funding cut and recommends a smooth transition.

A Papua New Guinean woman living with HIV, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told this newspaper yesterday that she was not aware of the Australian Government’s funding of the life-saving medication and the discontinuation of its funding until last month. The ART has kept her alive for the last 14 years. See separate story on Page 4.

An Australian High Commission spokesperson told this newspaper yesterday that Australia is not withdrawing support from PNG’s HIV response.

"Australia is not withdrawing support from the HIV response in Papua New Guinea. All grants related to HIV/AIDS treatment will continue to the planned conclusion date of 30 June 2017, after which new arrangements will be put in place. We are working with the PNG National Department of Health and other stakeholders to help strengthen PNG’s ability to better and more sustainably deliver health services, including HIV/AIDS and reproductive health programs," she said.

Health and HIV/AIDS Minister Micheal Malabag, who is currently in Manila for a WHO Western Regional Committee Meeting, said he has spoken to donors on the funding challenges plaguing the country’s HIV response and will address it next week when he returns.

But the response from the National Government to the looming funding shortfall will be haphazard as its lead agency – the National AIDS Council Secretariat (NACS) – is currently at the center of a tug-of-war between NACS director Peter Bire and the council board. Email correspondence sighted by this newspaper show the board – which comprises representatives from the Department of Health, Department of National Planning, Department of Community Development, Department of Education, UN, churches and the private sector – appointed NACS research manager Tony Lupiwa acting director pending the return of Mr Malabag.

The Minister, when alerted to the standoff at the organization yesterday, said he is annoyed at the developments and will resolve it after he gets advice from the State Solicitor, the Department of Personnel Management and the Department of Health.

Mr Bire, whose contractor as director expired in March this year but continues to hold himself out as the legitimate appointee, told this newspaper that the Australian High Commission did not consult NACS and relevant State agencies before making its decision and the news is shocking.

The Australian Government Briefing Note states that there were 22,548 PLHIV receiving ART as of mid-2016 in PNG. The cessation of grants from the Australian government will affect 8-10,000 PLHIV.

Source: Post Courier