Originally aired Channel NewsAsia on September 29, 2017
Despite the progress and advancements Thailand made in the fight against AIDS/HIV, stigma and social prejeduice remain the biggest obstacles. We talked to those living with the virus and those trying to combat with the ignorance and the disease itself.
Hidden in the hills of Lopburi province is a Buddhist temple that has been on the frontline of efforts to help people with AIDS live without discrimination. For more than three decades, Wat Phra Baht Nam Pu has provided a safe space for patients infected with HIV. More than 10,000 patients have been given sanctuary here.
Temple abbot, Phra Udom Prachatorn was behind the outreach. In the 1980s, he began taking care of people with AIDs who had been abandoned by their families People knew very little then about the disease, and many were afraid of the patients housed in the temple.
"When people heard that we have people with AIDS here, nobody wanted to come to the temple," tells the abbot, "The reactions were quite strong. The locals were against it and not only wanted us to stop, they wanted us to move elsewhere."
51-year-old 'Nui" - not her real name because she did not want to be identified - knows full well the stigma imposed on AIDS patients. She was infected with AIDS seven years ago and almost immediately after that, was branded an outcast by her community.
"No one looked after me, the neighbors despised me. I don’t have any relatives, no parents. It’s better stay here. Outside, I would struggle because society shuns me," "Nui" says. Niu now lives with hundreds of other AIDs patients on the grounds of the temple. She's been there for six years, afraid to venture out because of the discrimination she encounters.
Stigma and social prejudice are one of Thailand’s biggest obstacles in its fight against AIDs. Although the country has been effective in curbing the disease – reducing by 50 percent the annual number of new HIV infections – it has some way to go before those living with AIDs are fully accepted by society.
Thailand has been widely successful in its effort to stop the spread of AIDS. The number of new HIV infections has fallen from 140,000 in 1990 to an estimated 6,500 in 2016; and AIDs-related deaths have fallen by one third.
Health officials are determined to keep these numbers down. They say early detection is key.
"Here in Thailand we have a health care package that is available for even those that are not yet infected," explains Walairat Chaifoo from the Ministry of Public Health's Department of Disease Control, "You can take a HIV-test for free twice a year. That’s how we get more people to test and to know earlier whether or not they have the virus."
Health officials hope their efforts will make a difference for future generations. But for those now living each day with the virus, their hope is far less ambitious. All they want is for society to treat them without fear or discrimination.
"People shouldn’t be afraid. AIDS is not that easily transmitted. You can touch hands and everything. We have all taken our medicine," whispers "Nui".
Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Lopburi Province