Tue, Jul 24, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Teaching the young about AIDS

Though discrimination and stigma run deep, Taiwanese activists and officials are pushing for greater awareness about HIV/AIDS to thwart an emerging epidemic

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

ILLUSTRATED BY YUSHA

Thunderous applause erupts as Hank (his English name is used to protect his identity) finishes a speech about contracting and living with AIDS. A young man - one of more than 400 in attendance - wends his way through the lecture hall to shake Hank's hand, then embraces him in a bear hug. Over by the stage, young women line up to have their picture taken hugging Regan Hofmann, a guest speaker.

Handshakes and hugs, let alone posing for photographs, is not the kind of response people with HIV/AIDS usually get in Taiwan. More often, they are shunned by their families, ignored by colleagues and branded as pariahs.

Hofmann - who contracted HIV eleven years ago through a heterosexual relationship - visited Taipei last week to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and show the disease threatens more than just the gay community or drug users.

"Taiwan is lucky in that you are ahead of the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic," she said.

Compared with the estimated 1.4 million people infected with HIV in North America and 740,000 in Western Europe, the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) figures put the number of Taiwanese living with HIV and AIDS at around 12,000.

Though this number is relatively low, a laissez-faire attitude towards condoms, the skyrocketing spreading of the disease among intravenous drug users (IDU), and discrimination, ignorance and fear - and the consequent reluctance of people to get tested - mean Taiwan is ripe for an HIV epidemic. If 12,000 seems like a small figure, CDC officials believe the number of HIV cases may actually be between two and five times higher because there is currently no national HIV/AIDS testing day in Taiwan.

"To make the data more clear, we need to run a campaign for HIV testing day," said Yen Muh-yong (顏慕庸), director of the Division of Disease Control and Prevention with Taipei's Department of Health.

Researchers say the sooner people are tested for the disease the greater control the medical community can exert in ensuring it doesn't spread. Early diagnosis of the disease can also help prolong the patient's life.

"Hofmann is the so-called non-risk group. But her story tells us that these groups should know that they too are at risk," Yen said.

According to CDC statistics, heterosexuals make up 23.9 percent of reported cases of HIV and 43.4 percent of those with AIDS, proving the popular assumption that it affects only the high-risk population is false.

"We notice that IDU has passed to the female group and the female group through prostitution to the heterosexual group to the baby group. If that keeps on growing than we will face heterosexuals [becoming] a general risk factor," he said.

KNOWLEDGE AND BEHAVIOR

HIV/AIDS education that actually changes behavior is the most important task in curbing a potential epidemic.

Yen says addicts in Taiwan know a lot about needle sharing and how to dispose of dirty syringes. But that knowledge is worthless if it doesn't affect behavior.

"After you become addicted you just want the drugs," he said.

Changing the behavior of addicts, Yen said, starts with changing the behavior of law enforcement. He said police used to bust addicts at needle exchange centers, pushing drug users underground and increasing the likelihood that addicts will use infected needles.

Though there have been positive changes in Taiwan over the past three years - police are strongly discouraged from arresting addicts at needle exchange centers - Yen says much work remains to be done.

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