Coming alive on the verge of death

TN News

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Many AIDS patients in terminal stages find peace and salvation in helping others even as they count their days.

“I wish I could wake up on a certain day being 12 or 13 years old. It was such a happy time. I was innocent and lived with my beloved family members.”

Such soft sentiment is not what one would expect from a hardened character like “Crocodile” Hien, but his gangster days are far behind him.

The wish for a normal life is something that the 40-year-old former Ho Chi Minh City thug, admitted several years ago to Binh Phuoc Province’s Nhan Ai (Compassion) Hospital for AIDS patients who have reached a critical stage, shares with all the inpatients.

Each and every one of the more than 200 inpatients spending the last days of their lives at the hospital knows such desires are fanciful and can never be realized, but they are displaying tremendous will power in discovering other aspects of life that redeem and sanctify their existence.

Most inpatients at the Nhan Ai Hospital â€" the country’s largest free hospital for terminal AIDS patients â€" work hard, caring for others who share their fate, and creating a sense of community they’ve not had for a long time.

AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), a disease of human immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is spread mostly through sexual and perinatal transmissions and exposure to blood-borne pathogens. The virus leaves patients susceptible to infections that can turn fatal. The disease currently has no vaccine or cure.

Poor wives

Another patient named Dat, who has become blind as a result of AIDS, said he used to be a drug addict and a gangster like Hien.

He said the fatal disease was a “comeuppance” because he had committed many crimes.

However, he regretted that many others did not deserve such a fate, having contracted the fatal viruses from their spouses or their lovers.

A patient at Nhan Ai, who wished to be known only as Hang, said she had contracted HIV from her husband who used to work as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver.

 â€œI was really scared when my husband tested positive for HIV after using drugs,” she said.

Her fears came true early this year, after the husband’s death, when she was found to be infected. She was admitted to Nhan Ai Hospital early this month when her weight had dropped to just 29 kilograms.

“I keep thinking about my son always. He has lost his father and will lose his mother soon,” she said.

Le Thi Dau, a medical worker at Nhan Ai, said there have been many similar cases where the wives contracted the deadly disease from their husbands.

Thu, who died last year at the hospital, had said she’d contracted the disease from her husband who’d got it from a sex worker.

Friends in deed

Although they are living their last days struggling with the disease, many patients at Nhan Ai Hospital have volunteered to take care of others in more serious condition.

One patient said he had contracted HIV after being tattooed with unsafe needles when he was at a drug rehabilitation center several years ago. After recovering from a serious attack of multiple infections, he decided to join a volunteer group to help other patients. They help feed and clean other patients, apart from helping the hospital staff with various other chores.

Two group members, Van and Cuong, also help the staff to clean the bodies of dead patients, changing them into new clothes and carrying them to the hospital’s morgue to wait for their relatives.

Dinh Ngoc Trung, a worker at the hospital, said they have helped do this for more than 250 patients who died there in 2008 and 2009.

“It’s terrible to witness so many deaths here because it makes me think about mine,” Van said. “However, I have decided to help others every day as long as I am alive. It’s what I failed to do before.”

End discrimination, make headway in HIV/AIDS prevention

Vietnam has gotten many things right in its HIV fight, but sustainable success still depends on better law enforcement and participation of the entire society, says Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS Vietnam Country Director.

Has there been an major progress made in fighting discrimination against HIV/AIDS people in Vietnam during the past several years? What are the achievements and the hurdles hindering progress?

Eamonn Murphy: During the past years, the government of Vietnam has made a lot of efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination against People Living with HIV and affected by HIV. The Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, issued in January 2007, is the most important legal document that has articles on protecting people living with HIV from stigma and discrimination. Subsequent to issuing the law, a number of decrees, directives, guidelines, and national action plans have been developed to guide the implementation of the Law.

Vietnam’s legal framework on HIV is among the best in the world, but the challenge is in the implementation. We need better collaboration between different sectors and different levels of government. We need to adjust the conflicting content between different laws related to HIV. We need to raise better public awareness of the importance of HIV prevention and how eliminating stigma and discrimination against people living with, affected by and at risk of HIV can significantly contribute to the prevention efforts. This needs leadership at all levels and by all Vietnamese people.

What about discrimination against HIV positive sex workers in particular?

The government of Vietnam has expressed interest and willingness in exploring new approaches to address sex work for the revision of the Ordinance on Sex Work, and this is a positive sign. Minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan had called for international support in introducing successful models of education for sex workers in an earlier dialogue last year with the international informal HIV coordination group, in order to seek better care for sex workers including HIV treatment, care and support. And for the first time in Vietnam, sex workers appeared in front of participants to the national workshop on reviewing and revision of the Ordinance on Sex Work to contribute to the development of a legal document that will have direct impact on their life. So the political support is there but again, we need to translate that into specific actions and ensure good implementation from central level all the way down to community level.

Is it too pessimistic to say that getting rid of discrimination against HIV/AIDS discrimination would be a tall order for Vietnam?

Stigma and discrimination related to HIV is a global big challenge, that’s why the theme for last year World AIDS Campaign is “Universal Access and Human Rights” with emphasis on the rights of everyone in need to have equal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. I have a belief that Vietnam can do it. What Vietnam needs is again, as I said before, for all Vietnamese to take leadership in the HIV response. Government officials, civil society and people living with HIV must all be actively involved in the response. Community members must know how to prevent HIV, spread the word and act on this knowledge as well as accept People Living with HIV as integral members of society. Together we can stop and finally eliminate the stigma and discrimination.

Reported by An Dien

Reported by Nhu Lich

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