“While medical services have seen big improvements in the past few decades, there is little or no progress on the stigma front,” said Apiwat Kwangkaew, vice chair of the Thai Network for People Living with HIV.
Many large companies continue to require job applicants to undergo blood tests for HIV, and deny them jobs if they are found to be HIV positive, he said. At some firms, blood tests are conducted regularly and if employees test positive they are dismissed with severance pay.
Apiwat said keeping HIV-positive people out of the job market would only create serious losses for the country.
“The government spends billions on treatment, so why not allow them to work for the country? HIV-positive people can work, and many are working age,” he said.
Treatment for HIV has improved greatly compared to the situation in 1984, when the virus was first found in Thailand. Yet even now, society is far from having the right attitude towards those living with the virus, according to Aids activists.
In fact, Apiwat said people living with the virus themselves found it difficult to come to terms with their situation.
“Some even people consider suicide after learning about their infection, while some want to give up their treatment and perish,” he said.
Apiwat pointed out that very few young people living with HIV were willing to discuss their health or their lives, and many kept the infection secret.
Jarunee Siripan, deputy director of the Foundation for Aids Right (FAR), said her foundation had been holding two-day programmes to help HIV-positive people accept their condition.
“It’s important that they stop stigmatising themselves. They should not devalue themselves. Once they have inner strength, they will be able to stand up and withstand discrimination or stigmatisation from others,” she said.
Stigmatisation is posing big problems in Thailand, she added. A 2015 survey conducted by the Disease Control Department showed that 41.4 per cent of the respondents were not willing to let their children play with their HIV-positive peers. A higher percentage said they would not use the same bathroom used by HIV-positive people, while more than 50 per cent said they would not use the same swimming pool.
“I think this is because we have not yet invested enough in public communication on this front,” Jarunee said. “We need to communicate more to understand more.”
With World Aids Day being marked on December 1, it is an opportunity for activists to help to make the public aware about HIV – and that living and working with HIV-positive people does not cause any problems.
A 2015 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) estimated that there were 36.7 million people living with HIV around the world, and 2.1 million of them were newly infected.
It has been reported that there are 426,999 HIV-positive cases in Thailand, with 6,304 new cases recorded this year. The virus is believed to have killed 16,122 people in the country in 2016.
Apiwat said his network had been providing counselling and care to HIV-positive people in 10 provinces.
“We advise them to take care of themselves. The virus often proves to be fatal because people living with HIV fail to take drugs on a regular basis,” he said. A failure to keep up the drug regimen regularly can cause drug resistance and opportunistic infections like hepatitis C.
Jarunee said her foundation was doing what it could to help the public understand that people living with HIV are not different from people battling other diseases.
“With proper medication, HIV-positive people can live until a ripe old age,” she said. She also called on relevant authorities to protect the rights of those living with HIV.
“Don’t leave children with this virus out of classrooms, and don’t keep HIV-positive adults out of workplaces,” she said.
Jarunee added that a good step forward would be if the Public Health Ministry takes the lead and announces that HIV-positive people were welcome to work at restaurants operating at the ministry.
This article is the first in a series on HIV/Aids that The Nation will publish to mark World Aids Day, which falls on December 1.