Still uphill but discrimination slowly receding

Although an increasing amount of information about HIV is available a lot of prejudice and many misconceptions about the disease remain, says the president of the Macau AIDS Care Association. Many HIV carriers choose to keep their illness a secret for fear of being discriminated against and even losing their families and friends

By: Inês Almeida 

The Macau AIDS Care Association (MACA) – created 10 years ago – offers services that include phone consultations and information campaigns in schools and businesses on how HIV is transmitted. The goal is to fight the stigma and discrimination that infected individuals suffer. 

“Have you ever met someone infected with HIV who openly speaks about the disease? You haven’t, have you? That shows there is still discrimination. People choose not to discuss it because they fear how they will be regarded by others, so they hide from society”, says Angel Cheang, the president of MACA. 

“They choose to keep their condition from family, friends, colleagues and any other people. They are reluctant to share the information because they feel society is not prepared to handle an HIV positive person . . . Discrimination is something they can’t deal with. It’s just there and we still don’t know the best way to deal with it”. 

There are a number of reasons for this.  

“First of all, there is no cure for the disease. Second, people still assume that it’s easy to get infected, which is not true at all. You need to be in contact with infected blood or certain bodily fluids and that just doesn’t happen normally,” she says. “But people still think that close contact with infected people is enough to also be infected, so HIV carriers are afraid to tell their families, friends and colleagues for fear of losing their jobs or being removed from the job market”. 

Within the family circle there is often an inability to deal with the disease, says Cheang, adding: “It happens especially with older members of the family, from a different generation, who are unable to understand HIV and process what’s happening . . . There’s an enormous pressure on patients, not just because of the disease itself but also because of the way people look at them.  

“When you speak about HIV and AIDS, there is a tendency to associate the disease with less than recommendable behaviour, so the patient is labelled less pure and dirtier”. 

The problem spreads into the job market, she says: “One of our associates had the guts to share his HIV positive status with his immediate colleagues but eventually other workers heard about it and he was fired because they were scared of working alongside him”.  

Angel says the situation “was unfair because you can’t fire a person based on that. It’s illegal”. 

In the end, the worker decided not to file a complaint because more people would learn of his disease.  

“If he had filed a complaint with a public department,” says Cheang, “more people would know he was sick. He just didn’t have the courage to do it, especially since he felt he wouldn’t get any protection anyway . . . After telling his friends at work, because he trusted them, he was fired, so he was feeling insecure and depressed”. 

Changing mentality 

The Association president says that the way people deal with the disease has to do with “internal fears”, which change from one day to another. “What we can do is inform people, tell them there is no reason to fear an infected person. People with HIV can live regular lives. We spread that message through schools, businesses and any other entities”. 

Angel says, however, that the stigma and discrimination have slowly receded in recent years. “Three or four years ago, we had campaigns like free hugs and we were mostly rejected because people just wouldn’t participate,” she says. “We would distribute flyers and no-one would take them or politely reject them once they read the content”.  

The situation is different now: “When we start a campaign, people accept our material. We can see the change happening, especially among the younger generations”. 

The first HIV case in Macau was identified in 1968 and as at January of this year more than 700 cases had been diagnosed.  

“In the past, the main cause of transmission was needle sharing among drug users, but sexual transmission has since become the primary cause of infection so we focus on promoting safe sex. We must tell people how to protect themselves, especially those of a younger age,” says the president of the Association, which also provides free quick tests for prostitutes.  

“If they aren’t sure of infection after unprotected sex, they can come to us and make an appointment. In our protected and safe environment, we give them the test,” she says. 

Simultaneously, there’s a hotline for consultations, which is used by people “who are unsure if they’re infected. They can call us and seek help. Over three thousand people have contacted us for advice”. 

*Exclusive JTM/Macau Business