THOUGH BETTER access to medical care has improved the health of many living with HIV, stigmatisation still prevents most of them from living normal lives.
A 22-year-old university student, Yui (not her real name), worries every time she thinks of hunting for a job after graduation early next year. She has heard plenty of stories of those who had to quit their jobs after their blood test results showed they were HIV-positive.
Her dad died when she was just a year old and her mum died the following year. She lived in Chiang Mai with her grandmother, while a foundation stepped in to take care of Yui, who was sick as a child due to the virus.
Yui, however, shakes off the worries, saying she has to seek a job to make a living and support her ageing grandma. Having taken anti-retroviral medicines regularly, she has generally been healthy, and hopes to get a job in the field of her study, possibly with a government agency. However, she is unsure if she will have to undergo a blood test.
Yui wants to one day have a family of her own. She has a boyfriend who is not HIV-positive, but is, along with her neighbours, aware of her condition. However, she has taken care not to tell anyone in university though.
Yui is not the only person having this problem.
Northeast Aids Network coordinator Thanutkan Thanutamornthanasiri cited many cases of young job hunters being rejected after testing HIV-positive.
A vocational college graduate in Bung Kan was rejected by a mall, after blood test yielded an HIV-positive result, she said.
Another case said was of an assistant teacher at a local administrative body’s nursery. She had been working for only two days when someone, who knew about her HIV-positive condition, told the boss and the community, resulting her being removed from the nursery, Thanutkan said. The assistant teacher was suspended without even undergoing a blood test. The administrators said they would find her a “more appropriate position with no direct contact with children”.
The assistant teacher is a mother of two, who are not HIV-positive and are studying in a different district.
Nimit Tien-udom, director of the Aids Access Foundation, confirms that stigmatisation remains a big issue and because of the negative consequences, people living with HIV are afraid of revealing their condition.
Many people face discrimination at public or private workplaces in the form of a compulsory blood test, Nimit said, citing many complaints on the matter.
Chatsuda Chandeeyin, commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), said the agency had received many complaints about discrimination during job application, as the public and private sectors require applicants to undergo a blood test for HIV.
Not only is there a growing number of people with HIV facing stigmatisation, even children whose parents are HIV-positive or who are themselves HIV-positive also face rejection by schools. Many kids are sent to study faraway, where no one knows about their HIV-positive parents.
Thailand has 500,000 people living with HIV – many of whom are in the schooling or working age groups.
Thanutkan said her network last year received seven or eight cases of children, whose parents were HIV-positive, being rejected from schools.
In 2016, a Nakhon Phanom school made the headline after a schoolmate’s parents forced a child whose parents were HIV-positive to undergo a blood test.
The child did not have HIV but this “uncalled for” action prompted the parents to move the child to another school, she said.
More such cases will emerge in future as those living with HIV also want to have children and anti-retroviral medicines are helping them have uninfected children, Thanutkan said urging society to be more understanding and allow them opportunities.
She recalled her own experience of losing two children who lived less than a year in 1992 and 1996. In 1997, her husband died.
“If we had access to anti-retroviral medicines like now, my children would still be alive,” she added.
In 2005, she married another man and wished to have a child as her test result showed no active virus and the treatment by that time enabled her to get pregnant without passing the virus to the child. Now her son is studying in Mathayom 2 at a city school, where his friends and parents know about her work for network.
When she revealed her condition to him three years ago, the son replied, “It’s okay, mum. You are just like others.”
In Thailand, there was a system since 1988 to report HIV infection in pregnant women and the Health Department joined with the Thai Red Cross Aids Research Centre to implement a project for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT).
In 2016, the World Health Organisation certified that Thailand – being the first country in Asia-Pacific region and the world’s second country after Cuba to keep the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV less than 2 per cent – had eliminated mother-to-child transmission both HIV and syphilis. In 2016 and 2017, the rate of children born with HIV was 1.80 and 0.92 per cent respectively.
A source at the Chiang Rai-based Ban Nam Jai Foundation’s home, that has given shelter to HIV-positive women and their children for decades, said the last family of a hilltribe mother and two sons (who are HIV-negative) will soon be leaving, as the elder son was about to graduate from a college and the second son was studying in Mathayom 2. The home will help the mother to find a job and a rented house, while the elder son was expected to get a job soon, the source said.
The source also raised concerns about youths who were born with HIV and are now adults with jobs and partners. There are increasing cases of some youths, who have hidden their HIV-positive condition from those close to them, stopped taking anti-retroviral medicines and later developed full-blown HIV/Aids.
To commemorate World Aids Day on December 1, The Nation will run a two-part series on people living with HIV/Aids. The first part focuses on how they have been struggling with stigmatisation in Thai society, while the second will feature efforts towards the goal of ending Aids by 2030.