Families are resorting to “live burials” of loved ones as a reaction to the rapid spread of the HIV in Papua New Guinea.

Margaret Marabe, a known local activist in the country, told the Agence France-Presse: “I saw three people with my own eyes. When they got very sick and people could not look after them, they buried them.”

She explained that families are resorting to extreme action due to both feelings that they can no longer look after the sufferer and fears that the infection will spread to others.

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.

Papua New Guinea is currently facing a situation that the United Nations AIDS Agency has described as “really getting out of hand”.

Diagnoses have increased by 30 per cent each year since 1997.

In a recent report, the UN said Papua New Guinea accounted for 90 per cent of all HIV infections in the Oceania region.

At the country’s first national summit on HIV prevention last year, Australia’s representative for HIV/AIDS, Annmaree O’Keeffe, predicted that half a million people could be infected over the next two decades.

She suggested a high-intervention strategy to see the infection level drop to around 200,000 people.

Peter Piot, head of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS, earlier this year warned that more than 1.5 million could be infected with the virus by 2015, which he described as an “African-type endemic”.

AIDS is mostly spread in the country through heterosexual intercourse, however an AIDS research group also found that half of the new infections were caused by gay sex.

Foundation executive director Rachael Le Mesurier said the group is concerned that the rise in gay infections is due to men choosing not to wear condoms.

Young women between the ages of 15 and 29 are twice as likely to be infected than young men of the same age range.

Dr Jacqueline Badcock of the United Nations Development Programme told The Advertiser : “Maybe we have the potential to lose the women of Papua New Guinea if we do not take drastic steps to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

The rapid spread and fear among people is fuelling accusations of witchcraft, with women being tortured and murdered by mobs who hold them responsible for the epidemic.

In the past, church leaders have reported AIDS patients being thrown off bridges and being left to starve in back gardens.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, insists that he has brought the issue under his remit and that the government is working with agencies on a co-ordinated approach to tackling the crisis.