Papua New Guinea's HIV/AIDS epidemic is on par with Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar and will wipe out some provinces within a few years, Catholic church aid organisation Caritas Australia said on Tuesday.
Caritas and Papua New Guinea AIDS workers said the number of HIV-infected people was almost doubling every two years in the South Pacific nation because of a society where rape and multiple wives and sex partners are common.
An estimated 67,000 people are infected with the virus in the country, said Caritas at the launch of an anti-AIDS campaign ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
"Our people are being devastated by AIDS," said Judy Michael, a Papua New Guinean (PNG) mother diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus which causes AIDS.
"We need to do something urgently to combat this disease, which not only kills people but destroys communities," she said.
The first case of HIV-AIDS in PNG was reported in 1987.
By 2015-2020 an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million people could be infected, wiping out a generation and destroying the economy, according to an Australian report earlier this year.
PNG has a current population of 5.4 million.
Caritas said PNG had become the fourth country in the Asia- Pacific, after Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, to have a "generalised HIV epidemic," which means an epidemic so widespread it affects all sectors of society.
The church group said PNG's high incidence of rape, the low status of women and high number of sexual partners by men had created an environment ripe for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"We were following the African trend where mainly heterosexual men were being infected," said Caritas Sister Tarcisia Hunhoff, a member of the PNG AIDS council.
"Now more women than men are being infected because men are bringing HIV/AIDS into the home," she said.
Michael, a diminutive woman from Madang on PNG's north coast, married a man from the rugged interior highlands where multiple wives and sex partners are signs of wealth and power.
"Our husbands are so unfaithful to us. We are infected in our own homes and especially our young girls," said Michael, who was infected by her husband who died of AIDS in 1998.
"Men don't respect women. They think they are head of the family and can do anything they want with us, it's a big problem. We have to say no (to sex) but that increases domestic violence."
PNG police estimate some 400 rapists and murders are walking free in highland villages and towns, said the Australian report.
Caritas said the jungle-clad highlands and capital Port Moresby were experiencing the highest rate of infections.
It said cultural practices in remote villages fuelled the spread of HIV/AIDS, citing the practice of some highland men marrying their dead brother's wife, even if she was HIV positive, and a general refusal by men to to use condoms.
Since 1998, AIDS has been the leading cause of death in the Port Moresby General Hospital, with 50 percent of patients today hospitalised due to AIDS-related illnesses.
PNG has seen an explosion in infections among girls aged 14 to 19 and the Catholic church is considering asking the PNG government to change the lunch hour for schools in Port Moresby to try and curb HIV infections amongst schoolgirls.
"Older men prefer to have sex with teenagers, particularly virgins," said Hunhoff. "There is a high incidence of men cruising school areas for lunchtime sex and offering to pay the girl's school fees for intercourse."
"For young girls whose families are extremely poor, it can be a difficult proposition to fight," she said.
Caritas said the fight against AIDS in PNG had also had to overcome the stigma associated with the disease. Some infected women have bween thrown into rivers or locked in huts and burnt.
"We don't have this so much any more. We have made progress. But stigma and discrimination is still a very big issue in PNG," said Hunhoff.