Bangkok, Aids activists vow to fight discrimination and stigmatisation
It’s time to empower all of the more than 400,000 people living with HIV, making them aware that they have the right to live in and win acceptance from society just like anyone else.
“Empowerment efforts must go on, while stigmatisation and discrimination must end,” Sopon Mekthon, director-general of the Disease Control Department, said last week.
Just as World Aids Day is observed across the globe today, organisations in Thailand have highlighted the need to empower the HIV-positive.
“People living with HIV are not patients. They are still healthy enough to work. They can stand up and support themselves as well as their families if they get opportunities from society,” said Nimit Tien-udom, director of the Aids Access Foundation.
Sopon has vowed to change hostile rules and regulations. “If we find any firm or government agency still enforcing rules that discriminate against people living with HIV, we will push for changes,” he said.
Three decades after the first HIV infection was found in Thailand, Sopon still acutely recognises that discrimination exists.
Recent efforts by residents in Chon Buri to drive out a charity after it started taking in Aids patients shows clearly that the public still lacks adequate understanding of the disease and the people who live with it.
Campaigns are needed to promote proper understanding, he said.
The National Committee on Aids Prevention and Solutions resolved that all government agencies should have the duty to prevent both stigmatisation and discrimination.
Sopon believes that empowerment of the HIV-positive is necessary because it was a way to let them live a normal life in society.
Authorities have also promised to lower HIV-transmission risks and ease the threat of getting the disease.
“We will campaign for safe sex and try to deliver condoms to risky groups,” he said.
The highest risk groups are men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug abusers and youths.
Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin has also recently said his ministry is now working hard towards achieving the goal of ending Aids in 16 years.
In October, Thailand made free anti-retroviral drugs available to all people living with HIV, regardless of their CD4 blood count (which is an indicator of how efficient their immune system is).
“The free drugs are now available to Thais as well as migrant workers,” he said. Thailand is among the first countries in the world to offer free anti-retroviral drugs on a national scale. “The anti-retroviral drugs can reduce HIV in the body and can reduce the transmission risk by up to 96 per cent,” he said.
The ministry would also strive to ensure that there are no more HIV transmissions from mother to baby and to minimise new infections in the population, lowering the incidence by about 90 per cent to no more than 1,000 cases each year.
According to official estimates, 438,629 people now live with HIV in Thailand. New infections are at about 7,695 this year.
Records show 246,049 got anti-retroviral drugs last year when the CD4-blood-count requirement was still in place. The number of people with HIV to get access to the much-needed drugs looks set to jump now the CD4-count requirement is gone.
Nimit Tienudom of the Aids Access Foundation believes that if the Public Health Ministry worked harder to promote campaigns related to Aids, problems would drop sharply.
“For example, although the ministry offers blood-test results within 24 hours, such services are available in some areas only and relatively few people know about it,” he said.
When results of blood tests are made known within one day, there is a greater chance that the HIV-positive will immediately enter treatment programmes and get necessary medication. The government has also skimped in the distribution of free prophylactics.
“As far as I know, the government offers just 50 million condoms a year while the health organisations’ assessments suggest that the country needs about one billion condoms for the effective prevention of Aids,” he said.
Society also needs to adjust its attitude toward the condom hand-out approach. “The availability of free condoms does not mean we’re promoting sex. It’s just that people need to have safe sex.”he said.
HIV stigma ‘killing people’s ability to work’
Everybody has to work to survive. Sadly, in a country with an unemployment rate below 1 per cent like Thailand, those with HIV are struggling to find or maintain jobs.
That is the case of “Miew”, who contracted HIV from her parents. Her mother died when she was in Prathom 5.
She is terrified of taking blood tests as required by many firms, whether at the start of recruitment or at an annual check-up.
“I don’t dare tell my employer that I’m HIV-positive,” said the 24-year-old woman who has lived with HIV all her life.
“Nick”, 29, said he lost his job as soon as his employer found out that he had HIV.
His infection was detected when he complied with his employer’s blood-test requirements. Before that, even he did not know that he harboured the virus.
“It was a double blow. First I found out that I had HIV and then my employer told me to resign,” Nick said.
He believes he was infected by a woman sex partner.
The technical engineering graduate said he had no problems at work and his performance was good.
“I passed probation and was about to sign a contract as a permanent employee,” he said.
After learning about the rights of HIV-positive people from the Aids Access Foundation and its campaigns, Nick filed a complaint and the foundation contacted his former employer.
Suntaraporn Ketkaew of the foundation said the company is denying that Nick was asked to resign because he is HIV-positive.
“It claims that Nick quit by himself. We are still trying to get him some compensation,” she said.
Blood-test results should be given directly to the employees involved, she and other advocates say, not to companies’ human resources departments.
“I’ve heard that, like Nick, many other employees also lost their jobs because they tested positive and the HR department found out.”
She also cited the case of a teenager who has been living with HIV since birth.
“She lost her job because she worked at a restaurant and it had a policy of not hiring HIV-positive people,” Suntaraporn said.
Generally those living with HIV faced fewer job choices.
“It’s discrimination, but the reality is those with HIV have the ability to work just like other people,” she said.
Since the first HIV case was discovered in Thailand in 1984, by 2010 about 30,000 children were estimated to be living with HIV transmitted by their parents.
The poor prospects of finding work as well as stigma make the lives of the HIV-positive harder.
“I had no friends when I was in primary school. My classmates just taunted me, labelling me the ‘Aids kid’. They wouldn’t play with me, let alone share anything with me. I had to eat alone during lunch,” Miew said.
Students at school would scatter as soon as she showed up because nobody wanted to be near her.
“Luckily, my teachers understood. They stood by me,” she said.
The help and guidance from the Aids Access Foundation also helped her move on.
“So, I’ve been able to focus on my dream of studying and working to support my elderly grandmother. I began doing odd jobs when I was still a primary student,” she said.
Her life changed for the better once she started making friends in secondary school. She was also given the chance to go to Canada to attend an Aids-related conference – a move that boosted her morale significantly.
“After that, I felt as if my life was not so bad after all. If I have problems, I just keep telling myself that tomorrow will be better,” she said.
This stigma is also hurting people’s access to medication – as many as 200,000 people with HIV previously lacked access to anti-retroviral drugs.
As for Nick, he managed to get a new job at a firm that has no policy of screening applicants before hiring them or doing annual check-ups. However, potential discrimination has stopped him telling anybody about his HIV status.
“I haven’t even told my parents,” he said.
Nick does not need to take anti-viral cocktails yet, because he still doesn’t have any symptoms. However, he can’t help but worry about his job.
“I just started here and don’t want to take any time off because I’m worried my co-workers will become suspicious,” he said.
Miew said employers should focus on performance rather than blood-test results.
“Please give us opportunities, so we can prove that we are as good as or even better than others when it comes to work,” she said.
She wondered why society shuns HIV-positive people, when they have to live with the infection all their lives. “Don’t waste our lives. We can work and contribute to society. Don’t treat us like a burden.”