Myanmar's HIV patients shunned despite progress in treatment

By Ei Cherry Aung

By Ei Cherry Aung

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Shortly after Cho's husband passed away at his parent's home his family called to tell her he had died of AIDS and said she should get tested.

Cho vividly remembers rushing to a clinic in the sweltering heat to get a blood test. She breathed a sigh of relief when it came out negative.

But then she started losing weight and began falling ill more often. In September, the former market stallholder went for another HIV test. It was positive.

"As soon as I found out I had HIV, I felt really sad as well as upset," the 43-year-old said, wiping tears from her cheeks.

Within two days, she had admitted herself to a clinic and hospice for HIV patients founded by a member of parliament from the National League for Democracy (NLD). Her family, who live in the impoverished Hlaing Thar Yar township in Myanmar's main city Yangon, did not want her to live with them.

Although the virus cannot be transmitted by day-to-day contact, they feared she would infect her younger sister's child. They support her financially, but would rather she never came home, said Cho, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

"My 21-year-old daughter has not come to visit me once since I arrived here, but at least she speaks to me on the phone, so it's not bad," she told Myanmar Now, an independent news service supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The hospice is home to nearly 300 patients, many with similar stories of rejection.

Myanmar has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia. Under reforms by a semi-civilian government since 2011, access to medication has improved compared to a few years ago when cash-strapped clinics had to turn patients away.

Some 210,000 people in Myanmar live with HIV/AIDS, of whom around 160,000 need life-saving antiretroviral treatment (ART) based on World Health Organization guidelines, according to aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

There is no official data on the proportion of patients with access to ART. MSF, long the main provider of HIV treatment in the Southeast Asian nation, says it currently gives ART to 35,000 HIV patients. Treatment is also becoming available at more state hospitals.

"Now you can get ART in government-run hospitals in many states and regions," MSF doctor Soe Yadanar said ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

Yet the stigma faced by people living with HIV lingers.

SHUNNED

Ignorance and fear surrounding the HIV virus which causes AIDS are among the many challenges that will face Myanmar's new government, elected on Nov. 8, in overhauling a neglected health system and changing attitudes fed by misinformation and a conservative culture.

A 48-year-old mother from Ayeyarwady Region has a similar tale to Cho. She says her community shunned her family when their HIV status came to light three years ago.

"Since I got HIV, nobody asked me to work at their homes any more," said the woman, a laborer who looks much older than her years.

She and her five-year-old son, also HIV positive, survive on fruits and vegetables from their garden.

"Without a job, we don't have money. Sometimes it's really difficult to find food," she said.

Like Cho, the woman only discovered she and her son had HIV after her husband died and a friend who was worried about her health took her to a clinic.

The boy has little idea of his condition except that he needs to take regular medication, his mother said. But his friends at kindergarten seem to know.

"My friends never ask me to join them when they're playing. They stop playing if I'm included," he said.

MSF's Soe Yadanar said much of the stigma is linked to a lack of knowledge about HIV, and poor families not having anyone to care for people living with HIV.

"We've seen cases where if someone looking after a patient with HIV dies while the patient is unwell, other people don't want to take care of the person with HIV anymore," she said.

Soe Yadanar added that while access to ART is becoming easier, there are still challenges in delivering treatment because of a shortage of staff, particularly doctors.

For Cho, who is now on ART, taking care of her health and diet is her main focus. But she has no illusions that her family will ever accept her again.

"My daughter is worried that if she gets married, her husband would use my condition against her," she said.

"So I think I'm going to spend whatever time that is left of my life in this hospice."

(Editing by Ros Russell and Emma Batha; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)