Life remains tough as society continues to not accept those living with HIV
Kai, 20, and 18-year-old Rew (not their real names) each have their own dream. Kai wants to be a soldier and actor, while Rew wants to be a photographer and a dancer.
But unlike other young men, it is difficult for them to realise their dreams, as they have been living with HIV and facing stigmatisation and discrimination since they were born.
“Aids carries a stigma. I always cry when I hear somebody shout that I am a person with HIV and [warning people to] stay away from me. [Earlier] I couldn’t do anything. When I was a schoolboy, I punched my friend’s face, as he scorned me as ‘the HIV guy’,” Kai said.
According to a recent report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), about 450,000 people are living with HIV in Thailand. About 27 per cent avoid going to clinics when they need treatment because of their HIV status.
Kai got the virus from his mother. He doesn’t remember his parents’ faces, as they died shortly after he was born. Fortunately, a man whom he calls “uncle” has taken care of him, even though this man is not a relative. Kai lived in a temple until he was 15 years old. His life first started to get tough when he was 6, when he learned that he was infected with HIV.
“At that time, I was very sick. My uncle took me to the hospital. After the diagnosis, the doctor said I had been infected with HIV,” he said.
“Of course, HIV for a young boy means nothing, but life got harder when I started to grow up. I was an outcast to my friends and my community. Nobody played with me or visited me once they knew that I had HIV. I was very disheartened and lonely,” he added.
Feeling abandoned by his community, he stopped taking antiretroviral drugs and his health condition worsened. He started taking the medicine again after he was given support by HIV-positive friends.
“I was happy when I went to see the doctor at the clinic and met friends who accepted me and understood me for who I am. We encouraged each other to stay alive. So I decided to start taking medicine again and now I am a healthy person,” he said.
His life is not always easy though. He later faced discrimination in the workplace and was ridiculed by co-workers, so he quit his job. He is currently a freelancer, chasing his dream of being an actor.
Unlike Kai, Rew, who has been living with HIV since he was 12 years old, has never hesitated to tell others of his HIV status, and accepts the consequences of his disclosure.
“You have to learn not to be ashamed to tell others, and to accept the consequences. Sometimes it will be difficult for you, but you can explain to others that HIV is not so easy to transmit,” he said. “When I first told others that I have HIV, nobody believed me. Maybe [it’s because] they see me as a healthy person,” he said. He also told his girlfriend about it, and fortunately she accepted it and educated herself about HIV.
Like Kai, Rew also has a dream. He wants to be a dancer and photographer. “I want to be a photographer because I want to see the world from different angles,” he said.
Nimitr Tian-udom, director of the Aids Access Foundation, said stigmatisation and discrimination are still major problems for people living with HIV when it comes to living and working in society, and accessing basic public services. Because of the stigma and discrimination, many people are afraid to get blood tests, so they don’t know their HIV status, contributing to the spread of the virus.
Recently, the foundation reported that some medical units declined to provide hemodialysis treatment to people living with HIV.
Some state agencies and companies still require an HIV blood test from job applicants, and some employers still force employees who have been living with HIV to quit or change positions. The problem is not confined to the workplace – some schools and educational institutes still do these things.
“We have to talk with employers and explain to them about HIV infection. Once they learn that HIV is not easy to transmit, they tend to change their policies and treat employees who are living with HIV the same way they treat others,” he said.
Prakornpan Channettri, 51, who heads the Buddha Raksa Club in Bangkok’s Bang Khen district, said that when she first openly admitted to having HIV, it scared others, and her two children were discriminated against.
However she managed to prove that people living with HIV could live with others in society because HIV is not easily transmitted.
After learning that she got the virus from her late husband in 1997, she joined the Population and Community Development Association’s Patongko project.
The project, funded by Pfizer Thailand, ran from 2004-2009.
It allowed a total of 600 pairs of people – each comprising one person living with HIV and one HIV-negative business partner – to co-sign for loans for vocational investments. Although it has since expired, many communities still have enough of a fund flow to continue operating.
Prakornpan said her community still had enough money to allow some 30 members to borrow for business investment. Some of the money has been set aside to aid members when they are sick.