Discrimination Hampers Pacific's Fight Against AIDS

by VR Sreeraman on  April 21, 2010 at 1:50 PM AIDS/HIV News
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In the staunchly Christian Pacific islands, the battle to combat HIV/AIDS is struggling to overcome shame surrounding the disease, which results in many patients being ostracised by their families.
 Discrimination Hampers Pacific's Fight Against AIDS
Discrimination Hampers Pacific's Fight Against AIDS

An AIDS conference bringing together representatives from US-affiliated Pacific island nations and territories in the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro last week heard of the discrimination faced by those living with HIV/AIDS.

"People think everyone with HIV is a sinner and that God will not forgive them," said Cathy Samuel from the atoll of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Samuel's family was forced to move to another island to get away from what she described as the "embarrassment" of having a family member who died from AIDS.

Another woman from Chuuk, who did not want to be named, said she was forced to move to Guam when her husband died after infecting her with HIV.

"Even my own family ignored me when they found out I'm HIV-positive," she said, saying moving to Guam was necessary to raise her three children.

There were 29,629 reported cases of people living with HIV in the Pacific island countries in 2008.

The disease's impact is restricted in most countries, with the notable exception of Papua New Guinea, where there were 28,294 reported cases in 2008.

The true figure of people living with the disease was likely to be around 54,000 because of under-reporting, the United Nations organisation UNAIDS says.

Levels of under-reporting in the rest of the Pacific are likely to be similar, it said.

Samuel said that when she discovered her cousin was sick, she arranged for him to go to the hospital. After he was released, he stayed at her home, but she still did not know he had AIDS.

One day when she returned home from work, she discovered the cousin had been taken by his parents back to his home island, a 70-mile (110-kilometre) boat ride from the main island in Chuuk.

Within a few days, he was dead and the family buried him immediately, an action at odds with the local custom for the extended family to gather for the funeral, Samuel said.

"I got so mad," she said. "In our culture, it's not right (to hold a quick burial). They could have waited for me."

"Then I learned that people on the island started banning family members from any community activities," she said.

"Even after a few years, my family still felt embarrassed by what people think, so they decided to move to another island," she said.

Samuel said no one with HIV should be isolated from the community.

Temo Sasau, from Fiji, said when he told his supervisors he was HIV-positive, his pay was withheld despite having worked at the business for 11 years.

Sasau said that after his infection, he fell seriously ill, losing weight "until I was just bones."

But he is now on anti-retroviral drugs that control HIV, and he said more openness was needed to ensure others got the life-saving drugs.

"The only time I remember I have HIV now is when I take my medicine," said Sasau who now works for the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation.

Zachraias Zachraias, who directs the Marshall Islands ministry of health's HIV programme, said discrimination meant no one from his country had been prepared to talk publicly about their situation.

"Thank you for your courage to help the people in this room in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Zachraias told those who had spoken out at the conference about the impact of the disease.

Source: AFP

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