AIDS a Growing Problem in Thai Society: Women and Children Increasingly Victims
Malcolm, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Mercy Centre is an AIDS hospice in the middle of a Bangkok slum. It is a place for the poorest of the city to stay and often to die. But if a family thinks it is a place where they can dump a sick person and leave, they'll find that this mercy is tempered with justice.
"If a patient's family does not come to visit, we send them right back home," said Redemptorist Fr. Joseph Maier. "We put a 100 baht note in their shirt pocket, put them in a taxi or on the floor of our truck, put them on the front step and say, `Welcome home.' We can't be part o the denial."
Maier has had to resort to such extreme tactics only three or four times. Denial is part of a slowly crumbling wall of fear and discrimination as AIDS becomes more and more prevalent in Thai society, and questions of care become more pressing. With nearly one million people infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, the Thai government and charitable organizations are beginning to look to families and communities to care for their own.
Maier, director of the Human Development Centre in Bangkok's Klong Toey slums, thinks that is only right.
"Every time I say, `OK, boys and girls, here's this guy or this girl, this man or this woman, and they've got AIDS and their family doesn't want them, so we'll take them in' -- every time we do that, that's a sin," Maier said. "I am telling that family, that whole community, `I agree with you. It's totally cool for you to throw all your folks out in the streets. ... You can't do that, that's wrong."
Scare tactics in the first AIDS prevention campaigns formed Thai perceptions of the disease. "We've known about AIDS for just about 10 years and Thai people are frightened of and reject HIV positive people," said Komkai Hamamool, director of Ban Pak Jai, a home for HIV positive and AIDS patients in Bangkok.
"The first time the government publicized AIDS, people saw mass media pictures of full-blown AIDS. They think that AIDS equals HIV positive. That was their first impression," Komkai said.
In addition, an early emphasis on "risk groups" -- marginalized people such as homosexuals, prostitutes and drug users -- rather than risk behavior, coupled with a belief that casual contact could cause transmission of the disease, further stigmatized AIDS patients. Physicians and nurses have been known to refuse to treat infected people, and those infected have lost their jobs. A family faced with an AIDS death -- most commonly, a father leaving behind a wife and children -- encounters problems in acquiring funeral and cremation services. Children whose parents have HIV or AIDS have been expelled from school. Some who are orphaned by an AIDS death have been rejected by relatives and denied institutionalized care, whether or not they are infected themselves.
Women can become multiple victims of the disease. "The women you get are the moms, innocent moms, and your husband gives you this jackpot," Maier said. "You find out when he starts to get sick. And you find out your baby has AIDS when he starts to get sick. This guy's just murdered you. The women are amazing. They forgive that. They forgive these guys over and over."
Later that day, a woman stopped in Mercy Centre to visit with Maier. She carried a baby and had bruises on her face.
"What happened?" Maier asked in fluent Thai. She replied that she slipped in the bathroom. "I think it was your husband," Maier told her, but she stood by her story. After she left, Maier said that she, the baby and the husband all have AIDS.
"If women have AIDS, the men will take care of them until the money runs out, which isn't very long, and then they abandon them," he said. "But if the men have AIDS, the women take care of them until they die. That's just the way it is."
A study conducted with the support of the Save the Children Fund in 1996 estimates that 63,000 Thai children under the age of 15 will be infected with HIV and 47,000 will die of AIDS by the year 2000. …