The UN was warned yesterday that its staff could set off an Aids epidemic in East Timor after it was revealed that a Darwin hospital had diagnosed 10 aid workers HIV-positive. Darwin has traditionally been the base for UN teams sent to East Timor, and the chief minister of Australia's Northern Territory, Denis Burke called yesterday for mandatory Aids tests for all UN workers in East Timor. He said the UN would be "hypocritical" if it did not act. "If the UN is serious about tackling Aids globally, they should start in their own back yard," he said.
Mr Burke said that UN staff visiting Darwin, 300 miles south of East Timor, accounted for most of the HIV cases recorded there in the past 18 months. He called on the federal health minister to raise the issue at the UN Aids summit in New York this week and asked the government to consider restricting visas that allow UN employees into Darwin.
Welfare groups warned that East Timor could become another Cambodia, where the UN has acknowledged that its peacekeepers contributed to the spread of the virus in the early 1990's. There were few incidents of HIV in Cambodia until the arrival of UN troops in 1992. Now 3.7% of 15- to 49- year-olds are infected, one of the highest rates in the world, according to UNAid.
Jan Savage, of the Northern Territory's Aids programme, said condoms are not widely used in East Timor, partly because of its strong Catholic traditions. It is also medically ill-equipped to deal with an HIV outbreak because of the dismal state of its infrastructure after years of conflict. "The parallels with Cambodia are clearly there," she said. "The last thing it needs is an HIV epidemic."