Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Couple leads Thailand's AIDS battle

Through the efforts of a husband-and-wife team, health care and love are dispensed to dying, orphaned or abandoned children in a family atmosphere

DPA , BANGKOK

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Heroes are most often ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

Ordinary, however, is hardly the most accurate word to describe two physicians crusading against HIV/AIDS in northern Thailand for the past 15 years.

Thai doctors Prakong and Vicharn Vithayasai displayed ultimate courage and compassion while colleagues balked at treating AIDS-stricken patients when the grisly disease first appeared in the city of Chiang Mai, 550km north of Bangkok, in the mid-1980s.

The husband-and-wife team witnessed first hand the horrors of AIDS at the Maharaj Nakorn Chiang Mai Hospital, where they worked during the onset of the epidemic in the area.

They were left to tend to 2,000 AIDS-infected patients dying from the unknown illness that ravaged bodies with ghastly sores and dripping infections. Other doctors at the hospital refused to treat adults, or the burgeoning number of abandoned AIDS babies who overwhelmed the children's ward.

"Most of the doctors in Chiang Mai refused to take care of HIV/AIDS victims," recalls Dr. Prakong, 58, dubbed the godmother of HIV-infected children by local media.

"Doctors not only in Chiang Mai, but also in the surrounding provinces, referred nearly all (AIDS) cases to our hospital. They said they did not know how to treat them, but I know they were afraid of getting HIV."

Prakong, a doctor of immunology, began working 12-15-hour days attempting to treat and comfort the scores of frightened victims, wasting away from the alien illness and its horrific physical effects.

But it was the abandoned and orphaned children that affected Prakong and Vicharn the most. So they decided to do something about it.

"At that time, the government orphanage house did not want to take care of these kids," says Vicharn, a pediatrician and immunologist.

"They said that they didn't know how."

In 1991, with the hospital's children ward bursting at the seams with abandoned AIDS-afflicted children, Vicharn again approached the government orphanage to give the facts about AIDS and its transmission. To its credit, he says, the orphanage took in a small number of the children, "but basically put them in one corner until they died".

The doctors decided dying AIDS children needed homes that would provide tender care in a family atmosphere. In 1992 -- with the help of a Swiss millionaire who read about their plans in The New York Times -- they launched the Support the Children Foundation (SCF), establishing four homes for orphaned or abandoned children infected with HIV.

The goal was to give love and health care to the dying youngsters in a family-type setting, and to set an example for government organizations and NGOs that compassion for AIDS victims must overcome fear.

SCF has nurtured and nourished 74 children at its four houses since 1992. Although heroic, Prakong and Vicharn's efforts were not without hardship and pain.

Twenty-five SCF children died in the early years before AIDS drugs were developed, the stigma of the disease keeping to be concealed for fear of community revolts.

"I felt very sad when the children began dying after so many years with us," says Dr. Vicharn. "We gave every effort to help them, but their deaths just made us work even harder."

Those efforts eventually paid off. With the advent of anti-retroviral drugs and the intensified care of Prakong -- who took early retirement to concentrate on the SCF -- none of the 24 children currently housed have died in the past seven years.

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