Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - AIDS sufferers being urged to speak out

AIDS sufferers being urged to speak out

AIDS sufferers being urged to speak out

CHAN Sophy's picture and biography were handed out to

30,000 people at last week's Water Festival. Sophy,

however, is not a famous movie actress or karaoke star.

She is an HIV-positive woman who has decided to go public

about her condition.

"I became brave, to have my photo taken, to tell my

whole story to let other people know, so that everyone

will protect themselves," said Sophy, 31. "Even

though I think I will not live much longer, while I am

alive I want everyone to know my story."

She was diagnosed with HIV early this year one of an

estimated 140,000 Cambodians carrying the virus.

"It's really frightening," said Dr. Tia Phalla,

Deputy Director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS.

"If one train accident caused 50 dead, people would

say `Oh, very shocking', but every day, 50 to 70 people

get HIV."

And a recent national survey showed that only one-tenth

of those who tested positive knew their HIV status.

Sophy said people often don't believe she is infected

because she looks so healthy. "But I tell them, `how

can you know what's inside?' I want everybody to really

believe that AIDS exists in Cambodia."

Cambodia holds the dubious distinction of the highest HIV

infection rate in Asia.

Since the first case was diagnosed in 1991, the virus has

spread to about 2.5% of the population. By comparison, it

took 10 years for Thailand to hit the 2% mark.

AIDS educators say that real people coming forward to

tell their stories of HIV infection and encourage condom

use are crucial to the fight against the

rapidly-spreading disease. Sophy's agreement to be

included in a UNICEF AIDS brochure handed out at the

Water Festival was one such step.

"If we can find people like this, it's very

helpful," said Dr. Oum Sopheap, head of the HIV/AIDS

Coordinating Committee, an NGO consortium. "We're

trying to find these people, with a strong commitment to

speak [out]; we need these people."

Tia Phalla agreed: "People living with AIDS can

speak about the disease, they have the emotion... and

then people will take it personally."

Phalla illustrated his point with a video of one

HIV-positive woman telling her story to a tough-looking

group of military and police. By the time she finished,

many of the men in the audience were in tears along with

her.

But in a country where being HIV-positive carries an

enormous social stigma, finding people willing to discuss

their stories is not easy.

Sophy's husband, who died earlier this year, lost his job

after publicly declaring his status during last year's

World AIDS Day. Sophy lost her job also and was shunned

by her neighbors after her condition became known.

"It's very embarrassing to talk about this

status," said Tia Phalla.

It is not uncommon for an HIV-positive husband to keep

his status secret while continuing to have unprotected

sex with his wife.

"Discrimination and stigma make prevention very

difficult," said Oum Sopheap, noting that outreach

workers are sometimes placed in moral dilemmas when

HIV-positive people beg them not to reveal their status

to their spouses. "It's hard, it's really hard... if

you cannot talk to the wife, they are prey to their

husband," he said.

Such attitudes help explain why the HIV infection rate is

spreading rapidly among married women 2.4% is the current

figure.

Thea, 28, and Maly, 29, said they believed they had

contracted the virus from their soldier husbands. The

women met through a support group set up by World Vision.

"One day I went to the hospital for another

problem," recalled Maly. "The doctor tested me

and told me [I had HIV]." Her husband has not had a

test. "Since he learned I am infected, he has not

touched me."

Thea said her husband was "in the jungle" and

had not been home since she was tested in May.

Their stories indicate the spread of the virus beyond

traditionally high-risk groups.

"People think, `If I don't go to a sex worker I'm

not going to get it', but it's moving into the general

population and people have to realize it is something

that's going to affect them," said Caroline Francis,

Project Manager of CARE's Border Areas HIV/AIDS Project.

Cambodia's about 10,000 commercial sex workers have a 42%

infection rate. With sex workers averaging three clients

per day and only about half the clients using condoms,

and then often going home and having unprotected sex with

their wives the infection rate is soaring, experts say.

By the year 2000, Cambodia may have 25,000 AIDS cases. By

2006, there may be 40,000 AIDS orphans. "We're just

at one stage of the epidemic we're not in the part where

we're actually seeing the face of AIDS yet," Francis

said.

Yet some 11% of hospital beds in Phnom Penh already hold

HIV-positive patients.

One group, Hope Cambodia Volunteers, was formed last year

to take care of needy AIDS patients.

Chea Sophy, assistant coordinator of the 52-member group,

is himself HIV positive. "After I knew I was an AIDS

victim I was hopeless, but my doctors encouraged me to be

hopeful and helped me to join this group," he said.

"I went to the [hospital] and met some other victims

and want-ed to help them."

Group coordinator Vathdana Chhavelith said they

concentrate on those patients who have been abandoned by

their families.

He added that sometimes even nurses will neglect AIDS

patients, so great is the stigma.

Sopheap told of a 29-year-old man who was diagnosed with

AIDS and virtually disowned by his family. Neighborhood

children taunted him, calling him "a-AIDS" [the

despicable one with AIDS].

"It's not the disease that hurt me, but the people

around me hurt me very much," Sopheap quoted the man

as saying.

Phalla said he would like to arrange a meeting of

activist AIDS victims with King Norodom Sihanouk, both to

destigmatize those stricken with the disease and to

recognize their unselfish work.

"These people who devote their remaining lives to

saving lives of others, it makes them heroes," he

said. "They become the solution."

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