Wednesday 12 December 2012

'Don't shun HIV patients, help them'

Anti-stigma campaign launched to get more sufferers to seek treatment
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2012

PEOPLE with HIV will be more willing to seek help if public acceptance of the illness increases, experts said yesterday.

Some 10 to 14 per cent of HIV patients are failing to turn up for at least a year for regular checkups at the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC).

Citizens and employers were urged by Minister of State for Health Amy Khor yesterday to be more accepting of people living with HIV.

"Patients have shared stories of how they kept their HIV-positive status a secret because of the fear of rejection from their family and friends," she said.

In the strongest call by a minister in recent years on the issue, Dr Khor hopes employers can empower this group of people because they work, study and play "like the rest of us".

"Reducing and eventually eradicating stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV will enable them to live normal lives," she said.

Dr Khor, who also chairs the National HIV Policy Committee, urged those with HIV to "shun the shame" and to live with "dignity and determination".

"You are not alone, not unwanted and you can make a difference in your life with your gifts and talents," she added.

"So stand up, step out and be counted."

Dr Khor was speaking at the launch of a new campaign by Tan Tock Seng Hospital to tackle the stigma faced by HIV patients.

It is the first time a public hospital has held such an awareness drive. More than 5,500 residents here have been diagnosed with HIV. And only 14 per cent of new cases that arose in the first half of this year were detected through voluntary testing.

At the CDC, up to 14 per cent of its patients have missed their medical appointments for over a year, said Dr Arlene Chua, head of the centre's HIV programme.

"There is a fear that other people will find out, that they may run into someone familiar," said Dr Chua. "Some of them can be very stressed when they come to the clinic."

Yet with regular medication, people with HIV can live as long as those without the disease.

Mr Donovan Lo, executive director of Action for Aids, said the move shows the importance of tackling discrimination in order to encourage more people to get tested and treated.

"Having knowledge is not necessarily followed by reduced stigma," he said. "It is a process that requires time to develop and must come from within each of us."

The hospital-wide initiative targets three groups - the general public, health-care workers and people living with HIV.

Banners, stickers and posters will be displayed around the hospital. People can also view an exhibition, put together by those living with HIV and community agencies, that will end on Friday. A video will be broadcast on the hospital's website and YouTube.

Mr Roy Ngerng, an HIV programme coordinator at the CDC who led the campaign, said that with less discrimination among the public, HIV patients too can feel better about themselves.

"HIV doesn't define them, but it is us who make the illness define them," he said.

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