Pham Thi Hue

Almost 2 years now, the entire world is living with a virus that transmits by casual contact. The equal opportunity virus; Covid-19, can infect absolutely anyone for simply breathing the same air as an infected person. Quarantine and social distancing have become new norms and the speed of transmission that took the virus from one continent to around the world in record time has been unparalleled. Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world closer through shared tragedies, experiences or limitations. But, Covid-19 is not the first infectious virus and neither will it be the last and at this time, it is important to think back of other viruses that have been deadlier with more limited, often-times avoidable, causes of spread. One such virus is HIV/AIDS. This does not spread through casual contact but the infected have suffered through society’s moral judgement for years and shunned. While we are in the Covid-19 pandemic together, those infected by HIV/AIDS battle with society’s ignorance, misconception and fear for the rest of their lives. Hope comes from heroes who rise from within, raise their voices and support.

One such voice is Pham The Hue from Vietnam.

I have lived with HIV/AIDs for 11 years”, unhesitatingly Ms Hue started her 30-mins speech on November 29, 2011 at the Liberty Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was an Australian Agency for International Development meeting.

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In 2001, Ms. Hue learned that her husband, a drug addict, had infected her with HIV/AIDs. She spoke with a strong, clear but emotional voice, telling the story of those dark days, the feelings of being humiliated, and her mental collapse. She gave birth to her first child, who is not infected with the virus, by cesarean section but she didn’t receive any care from the physicians or nurses. She was quarantined immediately and had to stay with her child in a separate corner of the room. Although being extremely weak and in pain, Ms. Hue had to clean her surgical wounds by herself. She recalled that people in those days still thought that HIV/AIDs virus had “wings” and was able to fly from person to person. On arriving back home from the hospital, her husband’s parents no longer allowed them to live there because of the disease. She, her husband and her child were told to move out and look for a place to rent. The sole support for her and her child was a small amount of food every day from her in-laws; both were always hungry and shunned by the family. After having moved into a new place for one or two months, they were always asked to leave at once due to their HIV/AIDs infection. This happened repeatedly since no one wanted to have people infected with HIV/AIDs in their residence.

Ms. Hue strongly emphasized, “People who have HIV/AIDs do not fear illness or physical pain. On the contrary, they fear being stigmatized and shunned. Many people infected with HIV/AIDs have died as a result of the stigma”.

She continued, “When our son turned three months of age, my husband and I intended to commit suicide due to the shame, isolation, and shunning. We actually bought poison and mixed it into a bowl of soup. We wanted that the three of us would die together. Suddenly my son burst out crying, which then awakened our spirit to fight for survival”.

Ms. Hue was one of the first to speak out publicly on television about the virus, the attached stigma and effects, “to show that we are people too”. She founded the Hoa Phuong Do group (Flamboyant Flower Group) made up of female members infected with HIV/AIDs, all of them having been infected by their drug addict husbands. The group disseminates information about HIV/AIDs and cares for HIV/AIDs patients, especially those who are shunned by their families to the extent that they are locked in the bathroom and given no care instead of caring for them in a sick-room in the house. The members of Hoa Phuong Do also assist with funerals for those who die of HIV/AIDS since nobody wants to help with this unpleasant, scary and difficult job.(1)

What the women rarely talk about, except when they are joking, is the near-certainty that in time they, too, will fall ill and that they will be feeding, bathing and consoling one another, and caring for one another’s children, as one by one they die.(2)

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Ms. Hue represents nearly 300,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam. She became a member of the United Nations Volunteers supporting a project entitled “Strengthening the Participation of People Living with HIV/AIDS”; she was also a delegate to The Global Young Leaders Conference in 2007.(1)

Pham Thi Hue was named an ‘Asian Hero’ by TIME Magazine in 2004. She is currently head of the PR office of the Community Health Assistance, and HIV/AIDS Combat and Prevention Center in Hai Phong. Her center is now working on a project which assists grandparents in properly taking care of their HIV-affected children. She gives several counseling sessions each day and makes her phone number public.

By 2014, Vietnam was a country teetering on the brink of a nationwide epidemic, with the large number of people infected with the virus that causes AIDS and with only 10 percent of those who fall ill receiving the treatment they need, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations agency. The statistics haven’t changed much even today. Experts say it is beginning to spread quickly into the broader population, and one of the chief barriers to prevention and treatment is the stigma that makes outcasts of those who carry the virus.(2)

HIV/AIDS does not spread through casual contact.

Just being ignorant and stigmatizing the victim in fear of our lives will not eradicate the epidemic, it will only bring it to our doorstep! The virus does not have ‘wings; our fear sure does!

References:
1. http://gas.hoasen.edu.vn/en/gas-page/ms-pham-thi-hue-her-stories-need-telling
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/world/asia/28viet.html?pagewanted=1&n=Top/News/World/Countries and Territories/Vietnam&_r=0
3. Feature image – http://tuoitrenews.vn/features/27817/the-inspiring-life-of-an-hivpositive-vietnamese-woman-honored-by-time-magazine