YANGON, Myanmar — At last month's International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, new parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi asked delegates from around the world for help in building a network within Myanmar, also known as Burma, to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
"We need to make our people understand widely that this is a problem which we can handle together," she said via video feed. "Teach us how we in Burma may develop community responses to HIV/AIDS.”
For decades, the military junta that ruled Myanmar neglected the health care system on the whole and shunned HIV/AIDS sufferers in particular. As GlobalPost’s Hanna Ingber reported in July, the regime “arrested AIDS activists, blocked humanitarian activities and actively discriminated against those with HIV.”
Stigma against HIV-positive people is still prevalent and treatment remains so difficult to get that 20,000 die each year for lack of HIV drugs, but Suu Kyi’s words indicate a shift in approach by Myanmar’s government toward HIV/AIDS.
In December 2010, a photographer traveled to Myanmar to report on HIV patients getting assistance from a local NGO called Phoenix Association that helps HIV-positive people reintegrate into society and combat prejudice. They also receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) to treat HIV/AIDS.
The testimonies of these patients, whose names are pseudonyms to protect their identities, reflect the power of ART, the societal cost of infection and the gratitude of those lucky enough to receive treatment.
Name: Zaw Lin
I found out I was HIV-positive when my child was severely ill in the hospital and the doctor advised that my wife and I should take a blood test as well.
When we found out our HIV status, we dared not let others know. We sought to solve it ourselves in secret. We couldn’t work anymore. We were depressed. Our days were doomed. I sold my properties at unreasonable prices and stayed away from others. Sometimes, we didn’t even have enough money to go to the hospital. I waited for the day I would die.
After the death of my little child, some of friends encouraged me to come to the clinic. Since the 27th of December 2009, I started to take CD4(156) and ART. I was suffering a lot at that time as I was taking this in addition to anti-tuberculosis medicine.
Currently, I face many difficulties. I don’t have regular income because I don’t have a job. But I know I can overcome these obstacles by encouraging and reminding myself not to give up.
My health condition is getting better from the treatment I receive. I am now ready to work again, but I would prefer to participate in social service for HIV/AIDS projects.
Name: Zin May Khine
My family used to live happily. Unfortunately, there were sores that appeared on my first son's skin in July 2002. He was losing weight in comparison to the other children his age so I took him to the Mother and Child Care Association to make a necessary checkup. According to the biopsy result at a private clinic, my son has the disease of having much white blood cells (leukemia).
My husband loves tattoos, so he tattooed his belly in September 2003. Afterwards, some sores appeared on him as well. I got infected because I needed to take care of the sores. After giving birth to my second daughter in 2005, my situation become worse. I took the blood test in 2005 but I didn't go to get the result. My situation became worse in 2006 so I went to the clinic again.
I told them that I took the blood test once, but I had not checked my result yet. They gave me the result. It was at that time that I knew I was HIV-positive. I felt so reckless and small. All the members of my family took the blood test and the results showed that all of us were infected. I was shocked and afraid of everything. I got depressed and even tried to commit suicide.
But later, I took ART and I gained courage to face everything. I have been receiving the ART treatment since 2008. The treatment has changed my life, I am now able to keep abreast with other people in my work. I am starting to live my life full of consciousness. I feel that I can overcome anything by waiting patiently for my children’s future.
Naing Lin Soe.
Name: Naing Lin Soe
I’ve known that I am HIV-positive since October 2010, when I took a blood test for the program “Sending the sons of old army officers to Malaysia.”
I have faced many difficulties because of my HIV status. As soon as the military found out that I was infected HIV virus, they un-enlisted me. I was fired from a post of government service. Then I earned my living as a trishaw driver, but my left hand was totally crushed because of a car accident and I needed an operation.
Now I am selling chilies at Da-Nyin-Gone market. My business is not doing very well these days because of high prices. Having little investment in the country is one of the factors. And I have many health problems.
I have two sons who attend the government school with the help of Phoenix Association. I worry for their lives and their education. I am divorced from my wife and my sons are living with their aunt.
But now I am taking the treatment. I have been receiving the treatment for 4 years now. Because of the treatment, I can still survive. I can do my own business and take care of my health by myself. I can also take care of my children.
For the future, I am planning to build my business selling chilies.
Saw Yu Nwe.
Name: Saw Yu Nwe
I found out I was HIV-positive after my husband’s death by taking a blood test. Because of my HIV status, I felt so small and dared not face the neighborhood.
I can overcome this by a mother’s embrace and the encouragement of the doctors and staff here.
There are a lot of difficulties that I face currently. My memory skill is reducing and it is hard for me to earn a living. Even though my health condition is improving, I still have some health problems. It might be due to me not taking medicines regularly.
I have been receiving ART for 7 years. Receiving the treatment has changed my life. My health condition is better than before. I feel like I am reborn.
In the future, I’ll try to make my wishes come true and live healthy and peacefully. I also want to give a hand and encourage those like me as much as I can.
Name: Ma Aye
I found out I was HIV-positive on July 12th, 2005. I found out from a blood test.
When I found out about my HIV status, many people criticized me. People were afraid that I would infect them if I visited them. They wouldn’t let me drink water at their homes. My sisters worried that their children would be infected if I stayed close to them. But I explained to them and let them read the pamphlets given from different organizations that they can not be infected in this way. They now realize what the real situation is.
I have been receiving ART treatment since December 12th, 2006. Some changes have taken place since then and I recovered from my health problems. I am so glad that I have a chance to look after the patients who are suffering the way I am.
In the future, I intend to serve our community by cooperating with people like me. It is also my hope that in the future, all patients who need medicine will have a chance to get it for free of charge.
Nyein Chan Aye.
Name: Nyein Chan Aye
I found out I was HIV-positive in 2008, when my daughter was in the hospital. She was hospitalized at first because of TB, but we found out that she was also positive.
We cried every night, scared that other people might find out. Then my husband and I took the blood test and we found out that we were both infected as well. When I found out, I was afraid that I would be discriminated against by my family and siblings. I was weeping all the time. I was depressed and I lost my confidence. I marked myself as soon to die.
My daughter died in 2009. After her death, one of my friends who directed me to go to the clinic. There I met a lot people like me. Through the counseling service, I came to realize that I can still live a long life and that the disease can be controlled by ART. I started volunteering in social services and living more happily.
But everybody has their own difficulties. I still have them too. I am a jobless and it is difficult for me to find work and pay my rental fees. I still cannot find a job.
I haven't received the ART treatment yet, but I was relieved by the counseling. Before, it was like I was waiting for my time to die because the syndrome felt so hopeless. Now, I know that the ART treatment can control the disease. The organization has also enabled me to be a volunteer. I help people like me as much as I can because I know the way they feel. I now know how to live happily with myself.
In the future, I'm going to help people with the same condition as me and support their needs as much as I can.
Nwe Nwe Win.
Name: Nwe Nwe Win
Before, my husband and I tried live happily and healthily. We did not take any remedy and never felt down. However, my husband was addicted to cigarettes and did not eat much when he was working. He had malaria while working in the countryside. Subsequently we found out that he had TB and had to take anti-TB drugs. The results of his tests also showed that he had HIV. When I was attempting to donate blood in 2001, I found out that I also was HIV-positive.
When I found out, my relatives couldn’t accept the situation and discriminated against me because of it. The doctors did not take care for us or explain a cure. Eventually, my husband’s lungs were almost half gone.
At some point, a roommate at the hospital suggested that I go to the clinic. I went in November 2010. Everyone gave us attention there. It has been one month since I started receiving ART treatment.
The treatment has changed my life. My health is getting better. I live like a normal person. I can also share my knowledge to those with the same health condition as me.
Currently I face difficulties in the sense that I cannot earn and spend money like others. Though my husband and I are infected, we are glad that our son is not. I tryto be optimistic and not to give up. From now on, I will try to help those who are suffering the way I am.
My own health has became better not because of my relatives and neighbors but because of the clinic. Now my relatives accept my situation. I will show my gratitude by working as a volunteer till I die.
In the future, I wish that every patient may have enough medicine to take.
Tin Tin Maw.
Name: Tin Tin Maw
My name is Tin Tin Maw, I am 44 years old and I work as a volunteer. I’ve known I’ve been HIV-positive for 5 years. I found out when my husband was hospitalized and had a blood test. The physician asked me to have blood test too.
I have encountered various difficulties because of my HIV status. My neighbors discriminated not only against me, but also my children. They were even loathsome when I tried to greet them.
At first, I felt so frustrated and blamed my husband. Is this a disease that can be cured? Can I be cured? I had to think a lot, but I could not let it out. I was suffering nearly one year until I asked for help. At that time I did not know that taking ART could keep me alive. My husband was admitted to a private clinic and needed to pay for the medicine. But I did not take the remedy as the prices of the medicine were very high at that time. I prioritized my husband. I did not go to any clinic or take any of the medicine. After a year, my husband passed away and my health condition got worse. At that time, it was suggested that I go to the clinic.
The clinic let me have a medical checkup and gave the necessary treatment. After a certain period I came to realize the importance of ART and taking medicine on time. My husband died because he never took medicine on time. It’s been five years since I received ART treatment. The treatment has changed my life. I have stayed alive until now.
To overcome my difficulties, I moved to a new place. I knew that I would be depressed if I stayed. I try to live as a new person and take care of myself. I try to help as much as I can in the relevant organizations and clinics I deal with. I wish my health could be normal again. I intend to work again one day. In addition, I would like to volunteer.
In the future, I want to participate in some anti-HIV/AIDS organizations. I so wish to embrace the patients who are infected with the virus. I really appreciate all the physicians and counselors of the clinic for instructing me and my daughter to take the medicine handily.