"My husband is HIV-positive, and I live with him. Why not?"

Le Nguyen - CNS
Halong Bay, one of Vietnam's UNESCO-recognized Natural Heritage, located in northern Quang Ninh province, about 120 km east of Vietnamese capital Hanoi, is full of colors: deep blue skies, turquoise ocean, white wakes behind the faster boats, brown fishing craft roaming the bay. The green of the islands blends with the colors of skin, eyes and hair of tourists from all over the world. All these bright colours create such a dazzling picture that impresses so many visitors.

But visitors to Halong Bay rarely choose a tour to visit the islands of Van Don, even though they were among Asia’s most prosperous harbours for hundreds of years. The reason is not due to the local poor infrastructure, including shortage of electricity and fresh water. It is because in the early 2000s, Van Don was hit by a “storm” of HIV infections. The rate of new cases was among the highest in Vietnamese localities, driven mostly by drug injection with dirty needles. Many locals died of AIDS, and Van Don became known as the “Islands of Death.”

Behind its shining colors, there is a subdued color in Halong Bay that few people may realize—the colour of life of those women who co-exist with their HIV-positive husbands.

In Quan Lan, one of Van Don’s biggest and most populated islands, local women go to work every early morning, digging the sandy beach for sa sung, a kind of marine worm and a local delicacy. Sa Sung digging job brings a good income for them. Dressed in work clothes with sun hats, gloves and rubber boots, they use trowels and baskets for their catch. Inside the baskets, there are water bottles, not for their normal drink against thirst, but their anti-HIV medications to be taken on schedule. Most of these women got infected with the HIV virus from their husbands or partners. A few are still HIV-negative, thanks to luck rather than to taking active preventive measures.

Diep Thi Hang is one such lucky woman. Her husband had been using drugs for a long time and was living with HIV, but she dared not go for the tests. Hang recalled her old stories, saying that her neighbours turned away from her when they came to know that her husband was HIV positive. They argued that if the husband got infected, then the wife and even their children would be too. Even Haang thought it was her destiny and accepted to live with her infected husband.

But then members of the “Bright Future” Group advised her to go to the medical clinics for HIV testing, and Hang followed their advice. Results of the first test said it was negative. She did not believe it was true, so she took three more tests – all with negative results. Diep was very happy with that, and since then she took more care of preventive measures against HIV infections. Hang told me, “My husband is on ART now and we use condoms.”

Hang shows us that without encouragement from peer educators, fear of stigma would have prevented her from seeking testing in time. But not everyone is lucky as Hang. Another local woman, named Thuong contracted the disease from her HIV-positive husband.

From their own experience, women like Hang and Thuong found out they cannot rely on luck, but on timely prevention methods. Together, they established self-support groups such as ‘Green Hope’, ‘Bright Future’, and ‘Negative Partners’ to support one another in minimizing the risk to HIV infection. They reach out to the negative partners, giving out information about efficient prevention methods.

Hang said: “We accept our destiny and continue to live and support one another. We encourage others to go for tests and treatment in time. In this way we have helped many people in the ‘risky group’ to avoid getting infected. We are very glad and will continue running these group activities. In the beginning our relative sdid not support our activities. But now slowly we have gained their sympathy and also of other local people, including those living with HIV.”

Hang recalled: “There is a case when both the husband and his wife are positive. I advised them about protection methods if they want to have a baby, including going to consult the doctor. They followed my advice, and then had a child who is negative. This is a wonder both to them and to me. So I really love what I’m doing now.”

Members of the self-support groups in Quan Lan Island, although yielding encouraging results, have not received complete support from the community, and even face discrimination that prevents them from expanding their activities. However, what they are doing done is truly commendable, bringing some hope of a bright future for those who are living with the deadly disease.

Le Nguyen, Vietnam
Citizen News Service - CNS
November 2013