The never-ending battle
Today, HIV sufferers in Hong Kong are able to manage the disease better than ever before – but Arthur Tam finds that the stigma against them still painfully exists in our society
In 2006, Duncan Chan parted ways with his boyfriend, who was his only partner at the time. That was sad enough for the Hongkonger. But it got worse. Feeling brokenhearted, he sought comfort in the confines of a city sauna and engaged in unprotected sex. As Chan painfully recalls, he couldn’t even see the man’s face. Then came the crushing news. After testing negative for HIV throughout his life, his health soon deteriorated after his unfortunate sauna visit and he found out he was HIV positive. He then contacted his ex-boyfriend who tested negative – so Chan surmised that he must have contracted the disease from his reckless night at the sauna. His life was turned upside-down.
To hear you’re HIV positive (not to be confused with AIDS – HIV only becomes AIDS when the white blood cell count in the blood drops to critical levels, thus endangering life), knowing your body could stop being able to fight diseases and cancers, must be a terrifying experience. “At first I was afraid that I would die a slow, painful death,” says Chan.
Chan, however, says he’s since come to terms with the disease. For today’s HIV patients, mortality, he says, is no longer such a serious issue. Medical advancements have created drugs which suppress the disease and subsidies from the government have made medication and hospital visits affordable. Chan (not his real name) is now active and healthy – and he takes three tablets of medication daily and goes for a doctor’s visit only four times a year.
So, in 2012, HIV for most sufferers in Hong Kong is a manageable condition. But there’s another battle to fight – particularly for those who are gay – and that’s the stigma. It’s hard enough being homosexual in the SAR, with the prejudices attached to being gay, but according to Chan, when you’re HIV positive on top of that, many people will simply shun you. He says what has been most difficult for him is ‘getting back into the dating scene’. “I was dating this guy and then I finally found the courage to tell him that I’m HIV positive,” he recalls. “Once he knew, he broke up with me and the pain and hurt from that moment – it was like I just found out I’d contracted HIV all over again.”
Luckily, Chan is now in a happy relationship and is working with the non-profit organisation AIDS Concern in its efforts to fight the associations surrounding HIV. However, he still hides his real name: that alone surely reflects the severity of the HIV stigma in Hong Kong. “I’ve considered doing video interviews and putting my name and face out there, but revealing myself might affect my family too,” he says. “What if people harass my mum or what if my sister loses her job?”
Chan is concerned how this HIV stigma manifests itself in both the media and in hospitals. He recalls when the media ‘sensationalised’ a story about a doctor committing suicide after he contracted HIV and put photos of him and his family on the front page. “For people reading this story who have HIV, it’s very disturbing and makes us scared for our privacy.” Chan goes on to say how he worries that this mentality discourages those who think they may have HIV from getting tested. “When [they] are put in a position of fear, they might treat themselves with prejudice,” he says. “Those who could have HIV would rather remain hidden and might not go in for testing, increasing the chance of infecting others.”
Reflecting this fear, only 62 percent of newly diagnosed people living with HIV attend specialist clinics according to the Department of Health. AIDS Concern director Loretta Wong indicates that public hospitals need to educate their staff – and that includes ‘private practitioners who are also in denial’. “I asked my own physician what he does if he tests someone with HIV,” says Wong. “He told me that he would refer them to a clinic. When I checked his clinic reference, it was a place that had already been torn down. This is unacceptable.” Wong now reaches out to private practitioners to refer patients to AIDS Concern. From there, she and her colleagues provide HIV patients with referrals to proper clinics.
Statistically, 4.4 percent of gay men in Hong Kong are living with HIV. So Wong is now setting up anti-stigma campaigns to educate the public, while also reaching sex workers, MSMs (men having sex with men), sexually active youngsters, people living with AIDS and other groups with a high rate of infection. She is also using innovative methods of outreach such as social media and gay dating apps like Grindr. In addition there are orientations, discussion groups and support groups hosted by AIDS Concern that Wong describes as ‘everything you want to know but dare not ask’. While Hong Kong has a total of roughly 5,200 people who have been infected with HIV since 1984 (extremely low according to Wong), she says ‘the challenge is working to keep it low’. Hopefully a cure can be soon found to eradicate the disease completely – but, in the meantime, here’s to hoping Hong Kong can win the battle against the ‘HIV stigma’ now.
For more information about AIDS Concern, visit www.aidsconcern.org.hk.