A woman’s difference in Laos

Published: 14 November 2003 0:00 CET

Teresita Usapdin in Laos and Pekka Reinikainen in Uganda

The Lunar New Year is a time for renewal and rebirth in Laos. During the festival, people make wishes for the New Year and clean their houses in preparation for a fresh start.

It was while she was cleaning her home during the New Year festival in April 2002 that Daoloy Thaviphone, a housewife with two young sons, discovered a secret that would bring tragic changes. Among her husband's clothes she found a medical form saying he was HIV positive.

In December that year, her husband, a respected government official in Bokeo province, died. A few months later, Daoloy travelled from her small village to the capital, Vientiane, for a blood test. She had been suffering from frequent headaches and fever. She, too, was HIV positive.

It was a devastating blow to the 35-year-old mother of two. But a strong woman, she soon started a group of people living with HIV/AIDS that could meet and support each other. Recently, it even began an income generating programme through the production and sale of AIDS-ribbons.

Daoloy is one of 33 people living with HIV/AIDS whom the Lao Red Cross is supporting and working with in its HIV/AIDS programmes in four provinces, including Bokeo. She receives medicines, food and psychological support through regular home visits from the Red Cross.

This link with the Red Cross is also opening new avenues for the young mother. Daoloy and her group, with support from the Laotian and Australian Red Cross, have been trained as peer educators so they can help other positive people take control of their future.

Daoloy also recently represented Laos in the Red Cross Red Crescent delegation to an international conference for people living with HIV/AIDS in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

“Exposing Daoloy to other HIV/AIDS positive people, especially from other countries, gives her the opportunity to share experiences, pains and dreams with her peers. This is an important therapy that makes her and others feel important and better, knowing they are not alone,” says Dr. Soulany Chansy, HIV/AIDS programme coordinator for the Lao Red Cross. “It gives them confidence too,” she adds.

The conference was not just an opportunity to meet other positive people from all over the world. Daoloy had a mission to accomplish while there – get help in setting up a nationwide network of people with HIV/AIDS in Laos.

As well as the support group she has set up in Bokeo, there are another two groups in the country and so the step in setting up a national association doesn’t seem too great.

“Once we have that, we will connect Laos to the Asia-Pacific region of the Global Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS (GNP+) and through them, link up with the rest of the world,” she said while in Kampala. She is optimistic. “I know exactly what to do when I get back home.”

However, Daoloy’s biggest challenge lies ahead of her. Her eldest son, a seven-year-old, tested positive for HIV just a month before she left for Uganda, after he too suffered from frequent headaches and fever. Her younger son has not yet been tested.

“This is the cruellest thing. I never imagined this would happen to my family. I can take all the pain in life but not that of my children suffering from something they don’t even know. We don’t deserve this,” Daoloy says, fighting back tears.

In the small village where she lives, news travels fast. Daoloy says the most hurtful part is when her son comes home from school crying because his classmates tease him about them both being HIV positive.

“My son asks me: ‘Mum, what is AIDS? Why are my classmates saying we both have it?’” Daoloy heart aches every time this happens, but she always dismisses the question saying, “it is nothing, just don’t mind them.”

Daoloy who earns the family income of about US$ 3 per day from selling ‘kalawad’, a special Lao cookie and vegetables, says she often wakes up at night worrying for her children.

“Now that she and her son are both positive and her second son also facing the possibility of being HIV positive, one cannot imagine what will happen next. The Red Cross will continue to monitor the situation and give her the psychological and moral support she needs,” says Dr. Soulany.

Daoloy’s husband had contracted the virus during frequent trips to Thailand. Being a landlocked country, Laos is particularly vulnerable to HIV from mobile labour. Taking this into account, the Red Cross also provides HIV/AIDS education to vulnerable groups such as men whose jobs take them to other countries.

According to official statistics, 1,102 people tested positive for HIV, 599 people had developed AIDS while another 461 had died from the disease between 1990 and June 2003. This information came as a result of testing 91,003 people in 14 out of 17 provinces in the country including the capital, Vientiane. The worst affected region was Savanaketh in the south, while the mobile labourers were the most affected group.

While the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is still low in Laos, an estimated 0.04 per cent out of a population of about five million, the rate is slowly increasing. It is an increase that the Lao Red Cross says is due to many factors including a lack of awareness of HIV/AIDS, poverty, population mobility combined with accessibility to countries with a high HIV prevalence, lack of medical treatment, refusal to have blood tests and an increased number of tourists.

It has been 10 years since the Lao Red Cross began its HIV/AIDS programmes with the support of the Australian and Norwegian Red Cross, its own government and that of Australia. Now that support has been increased through the OPEC Development Fund, established by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Initial focus was on youth peer education, targeting particularly vulnerable groups. But since 2001, the Red Cross started focusing on people living with HIV/AIDS, providing help such as that given to Daoloy. It is also involved in community education in an effort to fight HIV-related discrimination.

“Our goal is to have a more specific target to enable us get a more concrete and measurable result,” says Neil Poetschka, Australian Red Cross technical advisor on HIV/AIDS.

Despite her fear for the future of her children, Daoloy clings to one ambition. “They are too young to understand the problem now. But I will live long enough to make them understand what HIV/AIDS is. I am praying and hoping that I will still see the day when my son who is positive becomes a doctor. It’s so that “he can treat me”. He says this every time he hears me coughing.”