HIV isn't a crime, its discrimination is

DECEMBER 4 ― I remembered a patient of mine ― Mr A.

A seasoned drug user with HIV who came in and out of the hospital for various lung and brain infections. He would also appear around festive seasons, or be brought in by the police after a raid, or after he had asked enough people for change to “balik kampung.”

The first time I met Mr A, he had used most of his veins to inject heroin in. He had used even the small ones you would find between your fingers and behind the ankles. Veins, once punctured ― they harden. And once hardened, blood doesn’t flow through anymore.

Yes, even when you stick a needle in, and yes ― no matter how big the needle is.

I spent many mornings with him looking for a functional vein. When the nurses and other housemen had given up. Or when they pretend to be, well, extra busy arranging empty bed pans in the store.

If I was lucky, I'd find veins that he had missed before. Usually very small, those hidden between creases and joints. But it got tougher with each discharge because he would use the same vein to inject drugs after leaving the hospital.

I didn’t mind much because he was a great help. He would start looking for one on his hands while I started with his foot.

And when we both agreed there were none to be found, he would offer me his neck or thigh to draw blood from.

I remember him because he was one of the few who spoke about his family. How embarrassment kept him away from home, and their fear of him infecting them kept them at bay.

I remember him because he made me realise that being a drug addict is less embarrassing than having HIV. Though eye opening, it wasn’t unique but a common theme among similar patients in the hospital.

He died from a terrible infection the same year I met him.

And despite the stories he told me about his family, nobody came. To wheel him out from the ward when he was alive, nor to collect him in death.

I am reminded of him as the world celebrated World AIDS Day recently. And it pains me because it wasn’t the lack of treatment that robbed him of life ― but the stigma that society, in this day and age, still associates with HIV.

On the medical front, we’ve made great strides in the treatment of HIV.

From newer and better drugs with lesser side effects, to their ability to increase the life expectancy of HIV patients by a decade.

But the war on HIV and AIDS goes beyond good medication and treatment, there is also the need to address stigma and discrimination associated with HIV. Underscoring its importance was the report by UNAIDS in 2014 that cited stigma and discrimination as the main reason behind patients’ reluctance to get tested, to disclose their HIV status so they can be treated.

Imagine that.

The reluctance to take a HIV test means late diagnosis and delay in treatment. A delay in treatment means one that is less effective, including missed opportunities for behavioural prevention which translates into higher possibilities of infecting others in the community, and even an early death.

Which makes combatting the stigma equally, if not more if not more important than the treatment itself.

* December 1 was World AIDS Day. We need to remind each other that being infected with HIV isn’t a crime, but the discrimination is.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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