Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Microlender supports HIV sufferers

ATTITUDES To qualify for the Thai program aimed at overcoming social isolation, applicants with HIV must become business partners with an uninfected person

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BANGKOK

HIV-positive and orphaned Thai children wait for a function to begin at the Human Development Foundation in Bangkok's Klong Toey slum last week. More than 15 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents to AIDS, according to a report released by US and UN agencies at the Bangkok AIDS conference.

PHOTO: AP

A program that makes small loans to HIV-infected people in Thailand is succeeding in helping them earn a living and overcoming social isolation, the program's organizer reported at the closing of the 15th and largest International AIDS Conference here on Friday.

The loans average about US$300 each and are short-term, from 6 to 12 months. To qualify, applicants with HIV must become business partners with an uninfected person, said the organizer, Mechai Viravaidya.

Mechai, who is Thailand's most prominent AIDS educator, having received international recognition in the 1990s for promoting Thailand's condom effort that is credited with saving millions of lives. The program aims to strengthen bonds between infected and uninfected people. As uninfected people realize that HIV-infected people paid their loans and made new ones possible, attitudes become more enlightened, Mechai said. He said that about 1,000 business partners have received loans since the program began two and a half years ago.

"In the course of human history there has never been a greater threat than the HIV/AIDS epidemic," former president Nelson Mandela of South Africa told the closing session. Mandela appealed to the world to contribute billions more dollars to the Global Fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to stop the spread of HIV and to get more life-extending anti-retroviral drugs to people who need them in poor countries."

In Asia, where an estimated 7.2 million people are infected with HIV, the epidemic is being particularly fueled by members of two marginalized groups -- intravenous drug users and prostitutes, participants said. Bangkok was chosen as the site for the first International AIDS Conference in Southeast Asia, largely to focus attention on the threat of further spread on the continent. India is poised to overtake South Africa as the country with the most people infected, 5.3 million.

Thailand's 600,000 infected people are mostly unemployed and must rely on support from family and friends after their scanty savings quickly disappear. Mechai said he organized his loan program to provide economic empowerment to break the cycle in which discrimination and stigma keep infected people from working and thus increase the level of poverty.

He said his team now had about US$500,000 available for the loans that were dispensed through hospitals. The program started slowly with US$100,000 of private funds and then expanded after receiving grants of US$50,000 from the UN and US$354,000 from Pfizer, the big pharmaceutical company. The loans encourage low-cost activities that take a short time to produce results, Mechai said.

Some recipients have worked at making candles, selling flowers and running laundries and Internet cafes. Other recipients make photo frames, grow mushrooms and peddle tricycle taxis. So far, about 70 percent repay their the loans at a rate of 6 percent a year.

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