If I were to ask you a question about HIV/AIDS how would you respond? Infact would you even be able to tell me more than it’s an STI and it’s contagious?
September of last year I left the country to go and do some volunteer work in Nepal. For several months upon leaving I had been placed in an orphanage, but at the last minute my placement changed and I was now working at an HIV/AIDS rehab centre for children and their mothers. My first reaction was “I don’t want to do it, I’m going to come home with AIDS!” Of course this reaction was repeated several times as I told each of my friends. The reason I reacted this way was because I have had very little education in the way of STI’s, especially HIV/AIDS. All I knew was it was an STI, super contagious and it killed you. It seems at in-school sex education all they really dig into is the use of condoms and/or the pill and abstinance. STI’s are only lightly touched. This seems to be the same in the media. How is it Britney Spears’ next huge breakdown can be on the front of every paper/magazine/all over the interenet, when there are much more serious issues that need to be addressed?
More recently, there have been few articles regarding STI’s and the importance of safe sex being published in Women’s magazine’s to raise awareness as the contraption of STI’s grew. In Australia in 2008 STI’s accounted for 43% of communicable diseases reported. 84% of those cases were chlamydia (which equals to 58515 notifications). Pretty scary huh. Of these STI statistics, 38608 of them were HIV/AIDS reported cases. The average number of notifications between 2004-2008 was 984. Of the 38608 accumulated cases, 6765 died. That is a huge number. You may be reading this and smugly thinking “but it’s a gay man disease”; I can assure you, you are totally wrong. Sexual contact between men is the most commonly form of transmission (66% in 2008), but in just the short period between 2005-2008 the exposure through heterosexual contact rose from 19.3% to 27.1%.
The point I am trying to make here is that there needs to be more media coverage on this issue! The longer this is put aside in the shadows, the higher the rates are going to get and the stronger the ill stigma will be.
I can reassure how bad the HIV/AIDS stigma is by sharing my Nepal stories. So after the freak out I had, I was sat down by my father who has worked in hospitals for over forty years. He explained HIV/AIDS to me in great detail and answered every question and anxiety I had. To put it in short the only way you can contract HIV/AIDS is through unprotected sex with an infected person, blood transfusion and swallowing a litre of an infected persons saliva. It also helped that my very own Dad has worked with patients that have HIV/AIDS and DOESN’T have the disease. Infact, you really don’t know who does. The person sitting next to you may even be infected by it, there are no visual signs that say ‘Hey, that person has HIV/AIDS!’
Look at the children in this picture. They look happy, right? They were born infected with HIV. Can you tell?
One of the first things I noticed on my first day at MSPN (the rehab centre) was how shabby the place really was. Even though Nepal is a third world country, you can still clearly see differences in standards. The rehab centre was a wreck, with the only nice areas having been done up or donated by other volunteers. The difference in how poor MSPN was in comparison to other government funded places was made very clear to me when I worked at an orphanage one afternoon. The house was nicer than mine! It was three stories. The lounge room had a huge flat screen tv, and there was a huge fish tank (the kind you only ever see in dentist office’s) the size of a wall with (I counted) twelve huge fish in it! Talk about unjust!
After walking through the gates on that first day, after being greeted by “Namaste Didi” (Hello Sister. An older woman is refered to as Didi; sister, in Nepal) from several of the children, I was showed inside to the office. In the office there was a noticeboard with information about HIV/AIDS, pictures of how the children have grown (visually) healthier (when first admitted a lot of the children were malnuritioned and suffered from tubercolosis, a usual disease associated with HIV/AIDS) over the course of their stay (usually six months), and quite shockingly a newspaper article. This particular article was so shocking and really makes obvious the stigma. In this article there was a picture of three perfectly normal looking children who had been expelled from their school because they had HIV/AIDS. It’s disgusting. How can these children grow to live a normal life when they’ve been kicked out of school for something they can’t help!
My sadness and somewhat anger towards the stigma only grew when I decided to accompany a hospital trip. MSPN is located in a suburb of Kathmandu called Patan. Patan has a hospital; infact it was only a ten minute walk from MSPN. Believe it or not, there are several hospitals in the Kathmandu area! With this in mind, you’d think it no problem needing to visit the hospital for a check up. No. To get to a hospital, these poor children had to travel an hour! Why? Simply because no other hospitals in the area would accept HIV/AIDS patients.
I also would like to add that although I started volunteering at MSPN with much apprehension, over the course of four weeks I have never met a happier bunch of people that have found such a deep place in my heart. I loved arriving to work and being bombarded by big hugs and kisses from the children. Upon leaving I was given a card that each of the children had written in, in this card in bold letters was written: “We love you Kachina Didi.”
HIV/AIDS and infact every sexually transmitted infection is a topic that should not be treaded around lightly. My Nepal story is only one of many that proves that these innocent people deserve better. Which is why over the next couple of months I will be addressing the political issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and the lack of much needed media coverage.