While we focused our attention on World AIDS Day last Saturday, we must remember that high rates of sexually transmitted infections leave Pacific Islanders particularly vulnerable to HIV.In some Pacific countries, as many as one in two young people have chlamydia, an infection that, if left untreated, can lead to serious reproductive and other health problems.
'If you have an STI, you are at greater risk of HIV due to behavioural, biological and gender-related factors,' said Dr Dennie Iniakwala, HIV and STI team leader at SPC.
Despite the high rates of STIs across the Pacific region, there have been significant successes.
Nauru and the Cook Islands, for example, where chlamydia has been aggressively targeted, have made considerable progress. In 2009, 49% of pregnant women in Nauru had chlamydia. In the Cook Islands, it was one in five. By 2012, the proportion of pregnant women with chlamydia in Nauru and the Cook Islands had dropped to 4% and 10% respectively.
'In Nauru, STI control measures, mass treatment for chlamydia, coupled with community awareness and education were actively used to address high STI rates, with a particular emphasis on condom promotion', said Dr Seta Vatucawaqa, Director of Public Health at the Nauru Public Health Centre.
'Advocacy and media collaboration were the underpinning pillars to the campaign with special care given to cultural and religious sensitivity.
'Workshops were conducted for all district leaders, youth, women's groups, church leaders, health workers, and people in work places. Brochures and posters were disseminated and key health officers delivered TV interviews,' said Dr Seta.
The progress made not only in Nauru and the Cook Islands, but across Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs), can be attributed to a large extent to the support provided by SPC public health specialists.
In the first half of 2012, for example, SPC specialists trained 233 health workers and volunteers in HIV and STI prevention in 10 PICTs, supported the implementation of HIV testing in at least one laboratory in twelve PICTs, and provided technical assistance towards the development of National Strategic Plans in four PICTs.
'The SPC Public Health Division provides support to PICTs in STI and HIV prevention; counselling and diagnosis; treatment, care and support as well as leadership, governance and strategic communication.
'This support means that PICTs are making progress in the response to the STI epidemic sweeping the Pacific, and are better equipped to protect their populations from HIV,' said Dr Iniakwala.
'These activities are made possible due to funding from the HIV and STI Pacific Response Fund, supported by Australia and New Zealand, and the Global Fund for HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis. Together these Funds are making an impact on the STI and HIV epidemic in the Pacific region' he added.
Although, outside of Papua New Guinea, HIV infection rates are low in the Pacific, sustained STI prevention and control are key to ensuring that HIV does not increase to the levels experienced in other parts of the world.
'While STI control is being implemented in most Pacific Island countries and territories, we must ensure that prevention campaigns, comprehensive STI management and targeted screening and treatment for most at risk and vulnerable populations continues to be rolled out,' said Dr Iniakwala.
'PICTs will need to work towards reducing STI prevalence, achieving zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination of people living with HIV and zero HIV-related deaths,' agreed Dr Sophaganine Ty Ali, SPC's STI and Counselling Adviser.
On this World AIDS Day, SPC joins our partners in encouraging all Pacific Islanders, especially young people, to visit their health clinic for counselling and STI testing. STIs can be easily treated if detected early.