HIV-positive people in Papua New Guinea are being buried alive, a health worker has claimed. The United Nations has warned that the country is facing an Aids catastrophe.
Margaret Marabe, who spent five months working on an HIV/Aids awareness programme in the remote Southern Highlands, said she had seen five people being buried alive by relatives, who feared becoming infected. One boy called out "Mama, Mama" as soil was shovelled on his head, said Ms Marabe, who works for a volunteer organisation called Igat Hope, pidgin English for "I've got hope".
Women in PNG, where many people retain ancient beliefs in the supernatural, have reportedly been blamed for causing the disease. Mobs have attacked women believed to be witches, and tortured or murdered them. According to some reports, 500 such attacks have been carried out in the past year.
Ms Marabe told Agence France-Presse that one of the five people whom she saw being buried alive was her cousin. "I said, 'Why are they doing that?' And they said, 'If we let them live, stay in the same house, eat together and use or share utensils, we will contract the disease and we too might die'."
Ms Marabe was speaking to reporters in the capital, Port Moresby, where she appealed to the government and aid agencies to ensure that HIV/Aids awareness programmes reached rural areas, where ignorance about the disease was widespread. Villagers had told her that it was a common practice to bury Aids victims alive, particularly when they became too ill to care for, she said.
An estimated 1 per cent of PNG's six million people are HIV-positive, and the United Nations has warned that the country is facing an Aids catastrophe on the scale of that in sub-Saharan Africa. Diagnoses have increased by 30 per cent each year since 1997. In a recent report, the UN said PNG accounted for 90 per cent of all HIV infections in the Oceania region.
Oxfam New Zealand, which is active in the country, says that extreme poverty, sexual violence, gender inequality and ignorance about the disease, combined with limited health services, are fuelling the spread of the virus. Women are at four times greater risk of contracting it, Oxfam says, "because their social standing does not allow them to negotiate safe sex". The World Health Organisation has predicted that one in five men, women and children in PNG will be infected within the next decade.
A recent report by an Australian think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, found that "sorcery, witchcraft and other supernatural forces" were widely blamed for the disease in PNG.
The report said: "The mysterious deaths of relatively young people, thought to be deaths from HIV/Aids, are being blamed on women practising witchcraft ... Women have been beaten, stabbed, cut with knives, sexually assaulted and burnt with hot irons." In one recent incident, two suspected witches were tortured and set on fire.