PORT MORESBY - There are around 45,000 people living with HIV in Papua New Guinea, with marginalised groups such as sex workers, other women who exchange sex for money, goods and protection, gay men and other men who have sex with men, and transgender women most affected.
However, less than half of the people who belong to those vulnerable groups have ever taken a test to know their HIV status.
In November 2018, UNAIDS together with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other partners, implemented a new outreach program in Port Moresby.
Its goal is to reduce the impact of HIV among those groups of people by mapping the HIV epidemic and expanding HIV treatment and prevention services.
Under the project, several outreach teams were created to promote and increase the uptake of testing and prevention services and to link people to HIV prevention and care services, if necessary.
By April 2019, the outreach teams had contacted 5,000 people and tested 3,000 of them for HIV, offering advice and support so that each person understood their test result.
“I like that we go to new places where people have never been offered an HIV test,” said a member of one of the outreach teams.
“My motivation is meeting the young girls and taking care of them—making sure they take their medication.”
The outreach workers sometimes face harassment while conducting their work and change out of their official uniforms and into their own clothes so that people feel more comfortable talking to them. But the outreach workers find the work deeply rewarding.
“I have lost friends to AIDS, so that keeps me doing this work,” said another outreach worker. “It makes me work extra hard not to see someone else lost to this disease.”
The outreach teams are led by members of marginalised groups, an essential part of establishing community trust and engagement.
In addition, leaders offer coaching, support and advice to field workers on a daily basis in order to ensure that their activities are as effective as possible.
Another of the outreach workers recalled his work with a transgender person, who he persuaded to try medication after testing positive for HIV.
“He told me that because he is transgender, he will only talk to a friend and that when he saw me, he knew I was a friend. Later, he brought in his companion to take a test.”
“This is a model of what can be achieved when we put our trust in community-led HIV services and programs,” said Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS executive director, in discussion with the outreach workers during her visit to PNG.
“These outreach workers are heroes and they are saving lives.”