MAIN STORY: Dark clouds hang in the cold evening sky. It could rain any minute. Outside, it is very cold.
In her cozy little room in Babesa, Thimphu Sonam (name changed) is sitting in front of an electric heater, engrossed deep in thoughts. She looks withdrawn, sad and worried about something that is eating into her life. She doesn’t talk much.
Life took a different turn when she was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) four months ago. She remembers the day clearly and with pain. Health officials called her to the hospital and told her that she had HIV. She felt a chill run through her spine and she went numb.
When she came back to sense, she was trembling. She asked health officials for how long she has been living with HIV and for how long she would live. She was infected with the disease recently. Doctors advised her to take medications.
“I remember I was shaking when I walked out of the hospital. Since that day, there has been a hole in my chest. I feel like I’m carrying a huge burden on my back,” said Sonam. As if she can’t believe it still, she shakes her head whenever she remembers the incident.
“I feel very sad. I can’t bear to look at anyone and don’t even have the courage to lift my face,” she said. “I cannot say anything to anyone.”
Sonam separated with her husband some years ago. One mistake led to another. To brush away her misfortune, Sonam started drinking. Not long after, she was abusing drugs. It was needle sharing that gave her HIV. Doctors explained it to her later.
A counsellor advised her about an anti-HIV treatment and medication available. She could have safe sex and prevent spreading the disease.
“I was crying on my way home. People were staring at me and I didn’t care,” she said. “I couldn’t tell anyone that I have HIV. I didn’t tell my parent and family members. I am scared of their reaction. I never thought I would get infected with the disease.”Only one person knows about what Sonam is going through. That’s her best friend.
To get clearer information about the disease, Sonam went to Lhak-sam, a non-profit organization that is committed to provide help to people affected by HIV. Sonam met other HIV infected people with whom she was able to share her stories and seek help and guidance from them.
Lhak-sam’s director, Wangda Dorje, is one of the five people who were the first in the country to come out as HIV positive on World Aids Day four years ago.
When Wangda Dorje was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, HIV or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was still a rare disease in the country. A handful of people knew about the disease.
Wangda Dorje battled on and came a long way to make people understand that HIV is like any other disease and that people can lead a healthy lifestyle even with the disease.
When Wangda Dorje and four infected came out in the public, there were mixed reaction from the public. Some cried that HIV positive people should be burned alive in Changlimithang or that they should be chased away or stamped a sealed on their body parts so that people will recognise them.
“People had a notion that HIV positive people were someone dark and skinny hiding in the corner, but not anymore. Today, HIV has a face and people know what HIV looks like,” Wangda Dorje said.
Due to the social stigmas and misconceptions attached with HIV infected people, many fear to come forward for test in health centres.
“Many people tell me that it’s better to die with the disease than to come out and let others know,” he said. “There is fear among the people due to the social stigmas people attach to the disease.”
Through Lhak-sam, Wangda Dorje helps people understand that HIV is not the only sexually transmitted disease but there are more than 20 other such diseases.
“We urge people to come forward and undergo tests. It’s better to be tested early than to face repercussions in the later stages,” he said. “It’s very important that one’s family and close friends render immense support and understanding.”
Today, Lhak-sam has 151 members who help networking and outreaching the affected HIV positive people and their families. The organisation also provides and promotes leadership, education and empowers them to improve their quality of life by reducing stigma and discrimination. It provides appropriate prevention, care and support services.
Despite misconceptions and social stigmas attached to the disease, there are also increasing number of people who show acceptance and appreciation, Wangda Dorje said.
Today, there are a total of 432 people with HIV positive in the country, of which, 217 are male and 215 female. The first case of HIV positive was detected in 1994. At least four new HIV positive cases were detected every month from December 2014 to June 2015.
Records with the health ministry show that a majority of the infected are married and are in the reproductive age group of 20-29 years.
The present figures are unsatisfactory because there are many undetected cases, Wangda Dorje said. “I consider the present number a failure. We need to do more advocacy.”
According to a study by the UN, there is still an estimated of another 1,100 to 2,700 undetected cases in the country, Wangda Dorje said. “We urge people to come forward to get tested because if one is unaware the disease will only spread.” An HIV positive person can infect five people in a year. That’s why testing and undergoing treatment is important.
“With treatment and medications, we will be able to fight this disease,” said Wangda Dorje.
This year, the World Aids Day will be celebrated on December 1 at the Clock Tower Square in the Thimphu. Health officials from the ministry said that this year the ministry will focus on HIV intervention to key population groups like third genders, transgender, vulnerable groups such as taxi drivers, informal sex workers, prisoners, and people who have less access to health services.
Programme manager with the ministry, Chador Wangdi, said there is HIV testing in every health centre in the country. “We urge people to come forward and get tested and inform other people about the disease.”
Wangda Dorje said that the disease taught him so much and made him stronger mentally and physically “I want to only make other lives better and meaningful.”
By Thinley Zangmo