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Churches join fight against HIV in Indonesia’s Papua

HIV and TB co-infection patient Sunarsih in Indonesia's easternmost province of Papua
Sunarsih, an HIV/TB co-infection patient who stayed at a church-run shelter (contributor/IRIN)

Churches in Indonesia’s Papua province, a Christian pocket in a mainly Muslim country, are seeking to play a bigger role in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Indonesia's most affected region, despite tensions with the government over funding, as well as philosophical differences on how to prevent the spread of HIV. 

Seven years ago, Sunarsih, 30, (who has only one name, as is customary in parts of Indonesia), sought out a church-run shelter for people living with HIV after she was diagnosed positive. “I heard that people who had HIV would die in a few years. I was ashamed and afraid,” she said, but did not know how she had contracted the virus.

Sunarsih is one of the growing number of people living with HIV and AIDS in Indonesia’s Papua region, composed of Papua and West Papua provinces, which have a predominantly ethnic-Melanesian population and make up half of New Guinea island. Despite abundant natural resources, including the world's largest known gold deposit, the area struggles with an underdeveloped healthcare system.

Under an autonomy scheme granted to Papua as part of the central government's efforts to pacify separatists’ clamour for independence, every village gets up to one billion rupiah (US$83,000) in development money annually, but critics say the cash has benefited local communities little.

Referred by a friend, Sunarsih sought treatment at Yayasan Pengembangan Kesehatan Masyarakat (Public Health Advocacy Foundation), a non-profit, Christian-run shelter for people with HIV and AIDS in Abepura town near Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua. The local state-run hospital provides free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.

“The organization has supported me all these years and provided me with nutritious food,” she said. “Now I’m back on my feet again.”

Simon Wospakrik, head of the community service department for congregants of the Evangelical Christian Church (GKI) in Papua, said its preachers have helped spread awareness about HIV and AIDS to 1,500 congregations across Papua and West Papua.

GKI, one of the largest of Papua's 45 or so denominations, has also worked with local authorities, NGOs and foreign Christian missionaries to educate the public about HIV prevention and provide health services.

“The church has to play an instrumental role in fighting HIV and AIDS,” Wospakrik told IRIN. “We can't just stand idle. We have to move fast and use all our resources to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.

GKI runs the ‘Walihole’ (Life Preserver) HIV/AIDS clinic in Yoka, a village on the outskirts of Jayapura, where ARVs and tuberculosis (TB) drugs are available at no cost. 

Korry, 33, began treatment at the clinic in December 2012 after she tested positive for both HIV and tuberculosis (TB), which health workers say are common co-infections in patients seen at the clinic.

She completed a six-month course of TB therapy and is still on ARVs. “I feel healthy again, just like I used to be,” said Korry, whose young daughter is also HIV positive and is receiving counselling from the same organization. 

“Many of them [TB patients] had dropped out of [taking their] TB medications before, so we have to make sure it’s [the illness] under control,” said Rumboi Werimon, the clinic’s secretary. 

The Health Ministry said a generalized HIV epidemic, lack of health funding and a “high” number of patients who do not comply with their treatment regimens are among major challenges in the fight against TB in Papua.

Health system challenges

Papua and West Papua, home to 3.8 million people, have limited road networks, as much of the region is covered by jungle. With many places reachable only by aircraft or on foot, the government and NGOs have struggled to boost access to healthcare. 

In 2012 the region had a ratio of two doctors and 17 nurses per 10,000 people, which is higher than the national average of 1.4 doctors and five nurses, but health personnel are not evenly distributed, Health Ministry data show. The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 23 health workers per 10,000 residents to provide basic care.

The provinces, known collectively as Tanah Papua, accounted for 15 percent of Indonesia's new HIV cases in 2011, the highest burden among the country’s 34 provinces, even though the region is home to only 1.5 percent of the country's 237 million (2010 census) population, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

There were an estimated 7,600 people in Papua living with HIV in 2010, but the number rose to 13,000 in 2012, according to the National AIDS commission, which estimates an average of some 3,000 newly diagnosed cases annually. 

The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) 2013 epidemiology report puts the estimated number of Indonesians living with HIV nationally in 2012 at 400,000, with an estimated 44,000 new infections.

The epidemic in Tanah Papua is driven almost completely by unsafe sexual intercourse, say experts. “There's lack of knowledge and sex education, and no formal sex education in schools,” said Sudhir Khanal, a UNICEF health specialist in Papua. “Sex is always seen as a very taboo subject to talk about.” 

The Evangelical Church’s Wospakrik says another obstacle in the fight against HIV and AIDS is the stigma and discrimination suffered by people who are positive.

Lipiyus Biniluk, head of the Union of Churches in Papua, which includes around 45 denominations, said despite their best efforts, services provided by the churches are limited to what their congregants can fund.

Theology meets medicine

“It seems to me the government has no desire to empower the people of religion in their anti-HIV effort. We need information, data and funding, but the authorities are only giving us lip service. They are not working seriously,” said Biniluk.

The provincial government says it has earmarked 11 billion rupiah ($950,000) in HIV/AIDS funding this year. Donors, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, are winding down assistance as middle-income countries like Indonesia reduce their reliance on external funding.

Aloysius Giay, chairman of the province’s Unit for the Acceleration of Health Care Development, a body set up by newly elected governor Lukas Enembe, said health workers and churches are “sometimes at odds” over approaches on how best to deal with the HIV epidemic.

“Christians consider circumcision to be a taboo, while health workers recommend it as an effective measure to prevent HIV infection,” he said. “Health officials are calling for the use of condoms, but religious people accuse us of encouraging promiscuity.”

“People [in the church] have this holier-than-thou attitude,” he said. “With money flowing in, and people having new-found wealth, it’s inevitable they engage in risky behaviour.” 

But Wospakrik said that while the church’s key message on HIV prevention is abstinence, it is not opposed to promoting condom use among those engaged in medically risky behaviour, such as men having sex with sex workers, he said. 

Long-held traditional beliefs – some rooted in religion – also get in the way, Giay said. “Many tribespeople believe diseases are caused by evil spirits, God’s punishment or black magic, and refuse to be treated medically. That’s the issue that the church should tackle [in addition to HIV].” 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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