Solomon Islands has been ranked as one of the top countries in the South Pacific region where teenagers are infected with sexually transmitted infections (STI’s). This was revealed in a 2009 HIV and STI report released by Dr Dennie Iniakwala, from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s HIV and STI project.
The report, released in Cook Islands recently, highlighted that almost 50 per cent of Solomon Island teenagers aged between 15 and 19 were infected. Chlamydia was the most common STI, followed by gonorrhea. HIV infection rates are very low with only 15 known carriers in Solomon Islands and awareness of the virus high amongst young people.
The Solomon Islands is one of the least developed countries in the world and is experiencing a period of transition with a rapid socio-political and economic change that is weakening both traditional and religious systems and values.
Dr Iniakwala told Radio Australia Pacific Beat the high rates were due to young people being highly sexually active and not practising safe sex. His figures bear this out, with 85% of males and 74% of females reporting a sexual history. The vast majority of the youth surveyed were not married (95%).
Only one in five males (21%) and two in five females (43%) who had sexual intercourse in the last twelve months reported having only one partner. More than half of the males surveyed had more than two sex partners in the past twelve months.
Over half of sexually active male youths (55%) and four in ten females (40%) reported they had had more than two sexual relationships at the same time.
Dr Iniakwala said since the statistics were gathered two years ago, there had been a shift in the way authorities tackled STIs. “Basically we are looking not only at treatment, diagnosis, and care, but also a comprehensive strategic health communication approach in communities, and encouraging people to be tested, as well as taking preventative measures.
Associate director of Adventist Health for the South Pacific region, Dr Chester Kuma, said the high STI infection rates in Solomon Islands need to be understood in context. “The Solomon Islands is one of the least developed countries in the world and is experiencing a period of transition with a rapid socio-political and economic change that is weakening both traditional and religious systems and values.”
|Dr Chester Kuma, Associate director of Adventist Health for the South Pacific.|
“Many children in the Solomon Islands do not attend school or leave school early. The country has experienced a growing demographic ‘youth bulge’ with approximately 70 percent of the population under 24 years of age. The youth unemployment rate is twice as high as other working age groups. The limited opportunities for young people have resulted in substance abuse (betel nut, alcohol and marijuana), criminal activities, teenage pregnancy and sexual exploitation leading to exposure to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.”
More than 90% of Solomon Islanders identify as Christians, with church buildings of all denominations overflowing most weekends. It’s a similar situation in many other Pacific island nations. To many observers the churches’ clear teaching on sexual abstinence outside of marriage is difficult to reconcile with the high levels of sexual activity shown by Dr Iniakwala’s research.
“In the light of this information,” said Dr Kuma, “the church needs to put more effort into programs that would engage young people. In a theoretical sense – in a spiritual sense – I think the church is attending to that. But just talking does not change behaviour and attitude. It’s getting the young people engaged in activities and programs that can help to create change – that is what I believe the church needs to focus on.”
Dr Kuma pointed to Adventist youth leaders’ current emphasis on youth resilience programs as one example of a proven strategy. He also suggested a three-pronged approach that includes clear biblical teaching on sexuality, programs that increase young people’s awareness of the social forces that impact on lifestyle and relationship choices, and positive alternative activities that would divert young people from risk-taking behaviours.
“Raising a young person is a sacred responsibility,” said Pastor Nick Kross, director of Adventist Youth for the South Pacific region. “Parents need to be involved, local churches need to be involved – Pathfinders, Ambassadors, Master Guides… Young people need to be surrounded by positive consistent messages from all these places to counter the negative messages coming from popular culture. But in the end, making good decisions about relationships and sex will come down to the quality of the relationship a young person has with God.”
“We need programs that can focus on child rights, basic education, HIV and STI prevention, engagement of young people and activities and programs that promote resilience,” said Dr Kuma. “And I believe the church can play a very significant role in some of these important areas.”