BACK in 1991, when little was known about HIV, a patient in his 50s was diagnosed with the virus. Treatment options were limited in those days, so having HIV – which causes Aids – was seen as a death sentence. He gave away his assets and waited for the end to come. Twenty years on, he is still alive thanks to medical advances and the fact that he responded well to treatment.
With better and cheaper drugs, and a stronger network of support, HIV patients can now survive longer, living almost normal lives. Under the right treatment plan, they can continue to work and have healthy relationships. However, many barriers to treatment remain, said Ms Ho Lai Peng, the principal medical social worker at the care and counselling department of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
Chief among them are the stigma and discrimination faced by HIV-positive people, she said. Pushing for an end to the HIV/Aids stigma was the focus of the 20th Singapore Aids Candlelight Memorial, held yesterday at Sky Terrace @ *Scape. The event, organised annually, gave those affected an evening worth remembering, in line with this year’s theme of “Touching Lives”, as families and friends gathered to share stories of the struggles faced by sufferers. Previous memorials had focused on different aspects of the disease, such as female patients and the resources available to sufferers.
About 200 people turned up at Sky Terrace to light candles during the memorial, which was observed worldwide. In Singapore, the events were organised by advocacy group Action for Aids, TTSH and the National University Hospital. Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin, the clinical director of the Communicable Disease Centre at TTSH, said: “In the past, we would light candles in remembrance of those who had passed away because of HIV and Aids. Now, we’d like to transform that into hope that we can give to patients.” SIM University lecturer Darren Koh,who attended yesterday’s event, said the disease could be managed with proper treatment and care. “I think the worst part is how people look at you,” said the 44-year-old, who lost a good friend from university to HIV.
Last year, 441 new cases of Singaporeans and permanent residents with HIV infections were reported, according to Ministry of Health figures released last week. More than half of the new cases involved people aged between 30 and 49. Sexual activity remained the most common form of HIV transmission, accounting for 432 of the new cases. The total number of Singapore residents living with HIV stood at 4,845 at the end of last year.
One is 38-year-old Paul (not his real name). He went for an anonymous HIV test in 2004, after learning that his partner had been infected. Yet he did not seek treatment early. “There’s this fear of somebody finding out – you wonder ‘what if my workplace finds out’...” he said. His family is still unaware of his condition; only close friends know. Last October, he was diagnosed with cancer resulting from HIV. And he believes his condition would not have reached this stage had he sought treatment more quickly. “If I had done it right the first time, I wouldn’t be where I am today. We can make choices – it’s in our own hands.”