A major figure in the fight against HIV/AIDS in South East Asia says social stigmas against homosexuality, prostitution and drug use are working against efforts to control the spread of the virus in the region.

Elden Chamberlain is the South East Asian regional manager of the Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS programs based in Bangkok. He believes while more people in the region are becoming aware of how the virus is contracted, many are ashamed to seek information.

Vietnam is a good example of this, he says.

There has been a -˜social evils’ campaign conducted that makes it difficult to approach the issue of injecting drug use. People are scared they will end up in jail if they identify too closely with the issue and that keeps it all very underground. The Vietnam government launched the campaign and it targets injecting drug users and sex workers and gay men as people they don’t want in Vietnam -“ they’re branded as social evils.

Chamberlain has predicted a rather dramatic increase in new infections in the region. To counter the rise, governments of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have agreed to introduce anonymous testing, which he hopes will remove the fear and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. It will also give researchers a better idea of how many people are infected.

The major countries of concern in South East Asia are Vietnam and Indonesia, he says, although HIV/AIDS remains a serious issue in China.

In China the Red Cross have actually increased the amount of activity regarding education and action programs. [In terms of contaminated blood supplies in Asian hospitals] I travel a lot around the region and I find that many people are concerned about the safety of the blood supply -“ people are certainly aware of the issue, he says.

Some of the work we’re doing with the Red Cross and our connection with blood services in the region has meant that we have been able to increase the safety and security of blood donations.

Chamberlain says researchers have discovered most of the transmissions in China and Vietnam are through injecting drug use, while in Cambodia and Laos most new infections are sexually transmitted.

South East Asian nations are dealing with the poverty families could face when their main money earner dies of HIV/AIDS related illnesses. In the meantime, Australian researchers are waiting to see what effect the crisis will have, if any, on the transmission rate here.

Chamberlain believes there is a distinct danger the epidemic could affect other nations, including Australia.

Although Australia is geographically quite isolated, I remember when I was living in Darwin that there was a real problem with HIV/AIDS in East Timor that was making its way to Darwin. A fair proportion of men who had contracted HIV in the Territory probably contracted it after visiting East Timor or Indonesia. Obviously it is far more serious for countries that are adjoining and you can see that between Cambodia and Thailand for example.

Chamberlain says the safe sex and safe drug use message is starting to be heard.

In China just a few years ago we couldn’t talk about the dangers relating to injecting drug use. We were told it was none of our business at the time. Now, we’re slowly working in with the government about harm reduction issues and what it means. The Red Cross now has a rehabilitation camp over there -“ no one else has that access. There were also areas like Hunan province where the government steadfastly denied that there was a problem and now a few years down the track, there are significant epidemics in these areas so there is a battle with this culture of denial that exists.

And, he says, just as the rate of infections grows, so does the commitment of the people working in the frontline fight against the spread of the disease. It just astounds me. You will find people who have got nothing, but are still giving, still volunteering.

[But] the issue about discrimination has been very difficult for me to take on. When I talk to people who have been thrown out of their communities or lost their jobs because of their HIV status, I realise there is a lot of work to do in South East Asian countries to bring down discrimination. As the Red Cross we need to think about discrimination and how that relates to access to treatments for HIV/AIDS. Poverty and stigmas are also a huge challenge for us.

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