DESPITE growing public understanding, the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids patients is still widespread and unrelenting.
Large numbers continue to face mandatory blood tests before they can be recruited to a firm or get accepted for ordination at temples. Children are not spared. They have trouble finding a place at schools as soon as others learn of their infection.
Apiwat Kwangkeaw, who heads the Thai Network of People Living with HIV/Aids (TNP+), says discrimination continues to be a big issue.
“A third-year university student was fired after his university found out about his infection in 2010,” he said.
The student was forced to move to another province and enrol at another university.
The Central Administrative Court has punished the university only for disclosing the student’s HIV-positive status to others. The court ruled that the university had the right to dismiss the student.
“I have appealed against the court ruling. I think the university is discriminatory,” Apiwat said.
He complained that discrimination was widespread at primary schools as well as temples.
“If people can’t turn to temples for solace, where else can they turn to?” Apiwat lamented.
He believed that more serious campaigns must be waged to increase better public understanding of HIV/Aids.
People do not die because of HIV. They succumb to the Aids virus, which develops only after HIV badly weakens the infected victim’s immune system. If HIV-positive sufferers get proper treatment from the very onset, they can continue to live a normal life for a very long time. They can work and contribute to society.
More than 400,000 people are living with HIV in Thailand at present.
Apiwat said so many of these people were of working age and society should embrace them.
“If you don’t allow them to work, how can they live?” he said.
While Apiwat estimated the number of employers requiring blood tests during the recruitment process was declining, AidsAccess director Nimit Tienudom blamed some state agencies for condoning the practice.
According to Nimit, some agencies have tended to see such discrimination as a move to protect those without the disease.
“It is not right to protect the rights of some people by violating the rights of others,” he said, “We need to create the right understanding here,” he said.
Nimit pointed out that HIV/Aids campaigns or prevention efforts should not focus just on groups like sex workers, drug abusers, and homosexuals.
“Otherwise, other people will think they are not at risk,” he said.
According to the national committee on Aids prevention and solutions, its three-year strategy (2014 – 2016) will expand its scope – for example, by increasing HIV tests for key groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, and drug addicts who use needles.
Nimit is concerned that Thailand will not be able to get financial support from the Global Fund to fight HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, and malaria after the end of 2016.
“Thailand is becoming a middle-income country. So, it won’t be able to get money from the Global Fund anymore,” he noted.
He said that with a shrinking budget, there was a risk Thailand’s battle against HIV/Aids would lose momentum.
Thailand is among the countries that have successfully cut the mother-to-child transmission rate to just 2.1 per cent last year. As many as 61 per cent of HIV-positive people in the country have also received anti-retroviral drugs. A sizeable percentage of these patients received the much-needed medicines for free.
Between November last year and July this year, 95 per cent of pregnant women who tested positive to HIV immediately received anti-retroviral drugs.
“The National Health Security Office (NHSO) cannot provide budget to non-governmental organisations. Although it has recognised the need to control the spread of HIV/Aids its rules require its financial resources be given to hospitals,” he explained.
He said the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, meanwhile, had to date given relatively little money for the prevention of HIV/Aids.
This is the first in a 3-part series to mark World Aids Day. The next parts are on discrimination in Thai society and patients’ responsibility in controlling the spread of the disease.