|© UNICEF Thailand/2005/ Few|
|Outside the offices of the AIDS Access Foundation in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, Yo looks at pictures drawn by other HIV-positive children illustrating their hopes and feelings.|
By Robert Few
CHIANG RAI, Thailand, 19 January 2006 – Part of the infamous opium-producing Golden Triangle, the mountainous and remote province of Chiang Rai faces many problems, including the drug trade, child trafficking and abuse, and poverty. Together they have left a vicious legacy: The province has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Thailand.
It is a legacy inherited by ever more children. Yo (not her real name) is one of them. At 15 years of age, she is HIV-positive, having contracted the virus from her mother during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
In the simple meeting room of the AIDS Access Foundation, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization, she explained how she learned about her HIV status: “I started to get sick three years ago when I got herpes zoster on my face and hips. It covered half my face and made it difficult to breathe.” (Herpes zoster is a disfiguring infection that can cause blindness, and is sometimes related to underlying immune problems such as HIV infection.)
After a month of suffering, Yo was taken to hospital. When the doctor heard that both her parents were dead, he decided to test her for HIV. In Chiang Rai, the death of both a husband and wife often means AIDS.
“The doctor said I had AIDS and I had to take drugs everyday,” said Yo. “My grandmother borrowed money for the drugs and we are still paying off the debt.”
Help is available
Yo is now being helped by AIDS Access, which aims to ensure access to anti-retroviral medicines and provide support for children affected by HIV/AIDS, in an area with a population of 100,000 people.
“Local hospitals just don’t have the capacity to treat HIV-positive children or to check up on them at their homes,” said Nampheung Plangraun, the manager of AIDS Access Foundation. “So we run training and other activities to empower local people living with HIV to look out for themselves and their children,” she added. “Now villagers report when a child is sick and take them to the right hospital if necessary. Before we had money from UNICEF, HIV-positive people were scattered here and there. Now they have come together.”
It was HIV-positive people in the local community who told Yo’s family about AIDS Access and let her know about the help she could receive. That help includes advice on how to look after her health and how to stick to the often complicated anti-retroviral drug regimen. Yo also received a watch that rings when it is time for her to take a pill.
But counselling and emotional support are just as important. They can make the difference between despair and the strength to carry on. “Since joining AIDS Access, my life has completely changed,” said a smiling Yo. “I used to feel totally abnormal, but now I feel 99 per cent the same as other people. Here they help me a lot to concentrate on the future.”
Born to fight
And the future is looking brighter. By building local capacity to run projects and raise funds in the community, the AIDS Access Foundation hopes that people living with HIV and their networks will be able to continue the Foundation’s work, leaving the NGO free to move on to other communities in need.
The Foundation has also successfully lobbied to make antiretroviral medication a part of the national social security scheme. Once implemented, it could mean that other boys and girls like Yo will not have to go into debt just to stay alive.
Yo has her own future plans, too. “I’d like to be a singer, but my voice is no good at the moment because I have a cold. But I also want to be a volunteer here at AIDS Access – to visit people in their homes and look after children in hospital. I’d tell them no one is born to die – they are born to fight.”