AIDS Sufferers Face Worsening Discrimination

Discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS continues in Cambodia, despite several years of government and donor-funded efforts to educate the nation about the realities of the disease, according to AIDS officials.

That is why the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching today a two-year campaign to change attitudes toward the victims of HIV/AIDS.

The Cambodian Red Cross will be one of 178 national Red Cross societies around the world to participate in the campaign, said Men Neary Sopheak, director of communications for the Cambo­dian Red Cross.

Bun Rany, president of the Cambodian Red Cross and wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is scheduled to preside over a ceremony this morning in Sihanouk­ville to mark the society’s participation in the global campaign and to commemorate World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day.

The International Federation of Red Cross will use the slogan “The truth about AIDS. Pass it on…” for the campaign, and will leave it to each country’s society to develop its own strategy.

Discrimination against HIV/ AIDS victims is everywhere, said Etienne Poirot, HIV/ AIDS project officer for the UN Children’s Fund. It happens even in first-world countries where there are high levels of education.

Employers in Phnom Penh and the provinces often discriminate against people with HIV, said Geoff Manthey, country program adviser for UNAIDS. It can also be difficult for HIV/AIDS patients to get proper health care.

One AIDS-patient advocate told of one HIV-positive woman who had trouble getting help delivering her baby last year. Govern­ment health workers refused to deliver the baby for fear of contracting HIV, the advocate said.

This kind of fear is common, said National AIDS Authority official Tia Phalla. Unless people are fully aware of the way that a fatal disease is transmitted, they will shun infected persons, he said.

But there has been progress made in getting many Cambo­dians to be more open-minded and accepting of HIV/AIDS victims, said the advocate. NGO workers in home-care and awareness programs have noticed a change of attitudes, for example.

When people learn how the disease is transmitted, “they deal with patients in a more positive way,” said Father Jim Noonan, director of Maryknoll Seedling of Hope. Until they gain this know­ledge, they often associate HIV with other transmitted diseases, such as dengue fever and tuberculosis, he said.

Manthey said he hoped the Red Cross campaign would be the start of more work to reduce discrimination in Cambodia.

The National Assembly is due to consider legislation in the coming months that would outlaw discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.

The draft law, based on a Phil­ippines law considered a model worldwide, allows for jail time and fines for violations of the rights of people infected with HIV/AIDS.

The law would state that em­ployment, housing, education, travel, financial credit, insurance, health care and burial ceremonies cannot be denied to someone because he or she has HIV/AIDS. Additionally, “the right to seek elective and appoint­ive public office shall not be refused” because someone has HIV/AIDS.

Cambodia has one of Asia’s worst HIV/AIDS epidemics, with an estimated 168,000 people, or 2.8 percent of the population, with HIV. HIV was first reported in Cambodia in 1991 and cases steadily grew worse in a country unfamiliar with the disease where condom use was not widespread.

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