The study revealed that in the past 12 months, 28 per cent of Cook Islands residents have had STI symptoms. It also showed that Cook Islands residents have good knowledge of the dangers of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and how to prevent it, with 23 per cent of Cook Islanders having been tested for HIV in the past 12 months.
It revealed that there are around 50 female sex workers in the Cook Islands who began when aged between 11 and 15. All knew where to get HIV tests.
The findings emerged from a joint study between the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the University of New South Wales.
Known as the “Pacific Multi-Country Mapping and Behavioural Study: HIV and STI Risk Vulnerability among Key Populations’’, the study examined behavioural risk factors and social and structural determinants of risk that drive HIV among vulnerable groups, such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and seafarers. The study covered nine Pacific countries, including the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and the information was released at a regional HIV forum in Fiji late last month.
The Cook Islands Family Welfare Association was one of the participants. The report indicated urgency for reforms in Pacific Island countries to adequately address HIV and the problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among vulnerable populations.
Despite having low overall rates of infection at present, the region was found to be vulnerable to an HIV epidemic due to inadequate data on key populations, limited awareness and understanding among policymakers of the disease’s potential long-term impacts and unsupportive policy and legal environments. Other problems included inadequate health systems and stigma and discrimination against some vulnerable groups.
Data produced in the research findings will be used by Pacific countries to support their regional and global reporting obligations and to assist national and regional planning.
Lead study researcher Professor Heather Worth of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, said for the first time, many of these countries now had key evidence on which to base HIV prevention programmes for those groups most vulnerable to the disease.
The study and regional HIV forum were supported by UNDP and the Global Fund through the Multi-Country Western Pacific Integrated HIV/Tuberculosis Programme. Full country reports from the study are expected to be published on Fiji’s UNDP Pacific Office website this month. Over 60 participants attended the forum, including Ministry of Health representatives from 11 countries, civil society representatives from nine countries, representatives of the Pacific Sexual Diversity Network from nine countries, a research team from the University of New South Wales and UNDP programme coordinators from 11 countries.
- Release/ LL