By Deepinder Janeja in Ha Noi
As Viet Nam Red Cross Society gears up for the International AIDS Conference this month, it reflects on the progress of its HIV/AIDS programme so far and the areas for future focus.
Ms Xuan wanted to commit suicide when she learned she had contracted HIV. A mother of two, she felt betrayed by her husband who had given her the virus. He died some months ago. Now, she lives on, trying to make ends meet for her children who have been forced to change schools. Their former school refused to let them in when they discovered their mother’s HIV status.
Ms Xuan lives with her family in Thai Nguyen, a province in north-east Viet Nam. It has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country with 510 cases per 100,000 people. Since 2008 the HIV response programme run by Viet Nam Red Cross Society, in partnership with the American Red Cross and with funding from the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, has focused on organizing self-help groups and advocating for greater access to information and support services.
“The counselling room has truly changed my life and my destiny. Not only was I encouraged to vent my hurt and frustration, I have also received a lot of care and support for my children,” Ms Xuan says.
90 per cent of the peer support group members that Ms Xuan meets with are people who inject drugs. The other main vulnerable groups in Viet Nam are sex workers and men who have sex with men. Through its HIV/ AIDS programme, the National Society provides support to all three vulnerable groups. With the stigma around drug use and commercial sex, access to information, treatment, medication and social care is extremely limited. The programme has forged crucial partnerships with hospitals that provide access to free medication and treatment to people in a stigma-free environment.
In the past year alone, five Red Cross counselling rooms in Thai Nguyen, Ha Noi, Hai Phong and Son La have offered counselling, antiretroviral therapy support, essential information on living with HIV and referral services to about 7,500 people living with HIV and their families. More than 1,500 are regular visitors to these counselling rooms.
Viet Nam Red Cross HIV counsellor Ms Tinh said it gave her immense satisfaction to be able to help other that were going through the misery and rejection that she had already been through. “We provide them with a comfortable space and they are assured of complete confidentiality,” she said. “I have been seeing the increase in the number of people who come to us. Often they hear about our centre from others who have been here.”
Ms Tinh is one of 48 HIV peer counsellors recruited under the Red Cross programme. They are all people living with HIV and come from the most vulnerable groups in Viet Nam. But they do not limit their services to the confines of the programme’s counselling rooms. They also visit the homes of those who need support but feel too stigmatized or are too weak to seek help outside. In addition, they provide community-based prevention and harm reduction information, promote HIV testing, and provide referrals to the counselling rooms and other service providers for people at higher risk such as at bars, places where people inject drugs and other ‘hot spots’ in their communities. Counsellors also visit state-run rehabilitation centres for people who inject drugs and sex workers to provide much needed psychosocial support to the occupants and their families. This intervention is the first of its kind in Viet Nam.
The Red Cross has long been responding to the HIV situation in Viet Nam. Many of its leaders, including provincial representatives and its recently retired President, have been personally committed to the initiative. Mr Tien, chairman of the Thai Nguyen Red Cross chapter, has been dedicated to the cause since 1992, barely two years after the first case was detected in the country.
He said: “The visibility and credibility that the Red Cross gained through this work has helped to strengthen our volunteer network. More and more people living with HIV are joining the network, and are reaching out for support. Given that the volunteers themselves come from high-risk groups, it has helped to reach out to at-risk populations. Now, even the provincial authorities approach us when they want to reach out to vulnerable populations here.”
The organization, with support from the American Red Cross, is planning to expand the coverage of its programme, and further strengthen its peer outreach worker and counsellor training programmes.
From 22 to 27 July 2012, the Red Cross is participating in the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C, where inspiring stories such as Ms Xuan’s will be heard. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is advocating for more services such as methadone treatment and job training for people who inject drugs, the largest vulnerable group in Viet Nam.
Going that last mile is crucial to changing minds and saving lives, especially for high-risk groups living on the margins of society.
To see more on the Red Cros approach to HIV and AIDS response in Viet Nam and Cambodia, please see ‘Into the light’, a film by Benoit Carpentier. https://vimeo.com/45966339.