What’s your attitude towards someone who has AIDS or is HIV positive?
Me? Well, I’m apathetic. In a way, I feel that this is a “you deserve it” kind of disease. You know having promiscuous sex will catch you AIDS, but you choose to sleep around. You know that eating fried, fatty foods will give you heart disease and that a diet high in sugar can cause diabetes, yet you chose to eat them. You know that smoking causes lung cancer, yet you smoke anyway. So if we caught a heart attack, diabetes or cancers due to our lifestyle choices, isn’t it a case of self-inflicted misery? We deserved it.
But there’s still a huge difference in the way we treat AIDS patients and sufferers of the common dread diseases. We are sympathetic if ill health is caused by things we put into our mouths but not okay if it is caused by activities into our other ‘mouths’. Sex is every bit as basal a need as eating and de-stressing. So when something goes wrong in the sack, in the car, in some public toilet, or just about anywhere one is bold enough to try, shouldn’t sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) be treated with the same level of nonchalance?
In Singapore, I think many of us still treats STDs as a ‘dirty’ disease. Then again, which disease is clean? The other fear is also the risk of catching these diseases from sufferers because they are transmittable. So are hepatitis viruses, skin fungus, and influenza. And it is because of the communicable nature of the HIV virus that causes AIDS that we need to accept and treat people living with the disease with equal dignity so that more people will be willing to come forward to get tested.
If we treat AIDS patients as outcast, who would want to come forth to find out their HIV status? The more people don’t know their HIV status, the higher the risk of spreading the infection. Therefore, for our common good, we must treat the infected with normalcy and provide support in the hope that by stamping out new infections, this highly preventable disease can be stopped. It is a war we can all participate in, and we can win this fight. The first step is to remove the stigma of the disease and breakdown discrimination.
Against HIV/AIDS Stigma & Discrimination – that’s the call for this edition of the Singapore’s AIDS Conference which hopes to engage a broader spectrum of communities in the prevention, care and advocacy of this disease. The conference is a biannual meeting held on even years and is spearheaded by the local charity, Action for AIDS (AfA). This is my first time at the event.
This year’s conference was attended by the Minister for Health, Mr Khaw Boon Wan as the Guest-of-Honour, and that’s quite a big deal because his presence shows the government’s support in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Singapore.
With a government official around, you would think that the conference would be a ballet of the latest research findings and clinical achievements in the field of HIV prevention and antiretroviral (ART) therapy, but I was pleasantly surprised, even taken aback at some of the criticisms lashed out against governmental policies that seem to inhibit efforts to fight HIV and proliferate discrimination to the extend that it undermines human rights. Do you want to know what are the policies that came under attack?
Do you know that Singapore has one of the most advanced policies in mandatory HIV testing but is also among the least in providing after-diagnosis care? In other words, the government wants to find out our HIV status but offers little to help.
Currently, all National Servicemen and pregnant women are required to undergo testing. Hospital inpatients are also automatically given a HIV test without their knowledge unless they opt out. Quite some years back, I was hospitalised for a while and I was surprised to see a HIV- in my medical docket although I don’t remember ever being told a test was being done on me.
Naturally, anyone who’s HIV+ and later develop AIDS would require a cocktail of drugs to manage their condition but none of the drugs are listed in the standard drugs list. A listed drug would receive government subsidy and becomes cheaper for patients. An AIDS patient pays about S$1,000 per month on medications and that’s not even taking into account the cost of consultations and other specialist treatments.
Social stigma, high cost of treatment and lack of government subsidy… who in their right mind would be motivated to find out their HIV status?!
But there is some good news in terms of medical cost for AIDS treatment. I’m not very clear what it is, but apparently, for certain stages of the AIDS ART therapy, the cost has come down from over S$1,000 to about S$200.
Patients can also get the same drugs at a cheaper price in Thailand (why patients can’t get them cheaper in Singapore is a complicated issue of Intellectual Property rights), and the Medifund, a sort of governmental medical charity fund set up to help needy patients who cannot afford to pay even subsidised healthcare, has been opened up to AIDS patients as well.
Another hurdle in the fight against the spread of HIV concerns the community of men who have sex with men (MSM). Under Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, homosexual sex is punishable by a jail term. The Singapore gay activists have been fighting to have this law repealed but it continues to stay because local legislators believes that Singapore is a conservative society and that by legalising homosexuality, it’ll turn everybody gay. I wonder… heterosexuality is legalised, but it didn’t seem to turn everyone hetero.
So the argument herein by the MSM against Section 377A with regards to HIV awareness is this – how can you talk about safe sex to a sex that’s been outlawed? And it is vital that gay men get the message drilled into their heads because according to the Ministry of Health statistics on new infections in 2009, of the total 463 new cases, 166 came from homosexual and bisexual modes of transmission. That makes up for about 36% of new cases, which places MSM in the high risk category. So guys, because you swords fight, please put on your sheath. That way, nobody needs to get hurt.
There’re still many more issues and topics I came across that gave me so much more insight into the disease. Being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence with the advent of treatment therapies and patients can lead normal and healthy lives for a long, long time. It is just like any chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes where there is no specific cure, but a matter of managing the disease with medications and lifestyle modifications.
I would like to thank all the persons I met during the conference who explained many things to me and helped me understand the challenges that AIDS patients and people living with HIV faced in being made to feel unwelcomed when visiting another country due to immigration policies or to be sacked from their jobs.
For those who are living with the condition or family and friends who are affected by it, you’re not alone as there’s a network of social workers and volunteers to lend a helping hand. Even though AIDS may seem to be a less life-threatening disease now, it is by no means an encouragement to engage in unprotected sex. ALWAYS USE A CONDOM AND KNOW YOUR HIV STATUS! Here’s wishing everyone a kinky good time, for a very, very long time