There is a discomforting story that is circulating both through the word of mouth and social media.
An association that helps people addicted to drugs or alcohol, Chithuen Phendey, has written to the Royal Bhutan Police seeking their intervention in dealing with a beneficiary. The beneficiary, a woman in her late twenties is fighting a losing battle against alcoholism. Worse, she is alleged to be infected with HIV and picked up by men as she roams the streets of Thimphu under the influence of alcohol.
The association guesstimates the woman to have slept with at least 50 men as they highlight the risk the woman could pose to the society. It is a genuine concern and the association should be lauded for taking the initiative. We cannot have a HIV infected person, especially a young woman under the influence of alcohol, preyed upon. Thimphu has become a city that never sleeps now. Any given night, young men and curious boys roaming or driving around the city has become a common sight. As they look for adventure in the night, young women under the influence of alcohol become an easy target.
The woman has, therefore, become a risk to others. Left alone to fend for herself, she could risk spreading HIV by getting picked up by strangers. The bigger risk is she is not aware of her status and the consequences.
But she cannot be blamed. She is sick and in dire need of help. People suffering from addictions know the pain when trying getting off the hook. Professional help, not threats of charging them under Penal Code for non-cooperation, will help them recover.
As the discussion surrounds protecting those at risk, perhaps it is time we relook into the issue of confidentiality and transparency as we discuss HIV/AIDS as a health issue. While we all agree that the victims should not be stigmatized or ostracized, we are struck by the need to protect others from infection. Sometimes it could be spouses and family members of those already infected.
How do we protect the others? In the fight against HIV/AIDs, our objectives are clear. The idea is to prevent the spread of the disease. The society had opened up. To a large extent, people are convinced that there are more life threatening diseases, worse than HIV. This has helped people shed the attitude towards those infected with HIV.
And some of them risking being shunned or ostracized, they came in the open with their status and stories. This had helped the society look at HIV/AIDS differently. They are accepted and treated like any other people suffering from other diseases.
From the reaction of people during the World AIDS Day on December 1 where they came for testing and talked about the disease, Bhutanese have changed the way they look at HIV infected people.
For some, it is still a sensitive topic to talk as it deals with life. For others it is no different from cancer, which is quite common in the country. There is nothing wrong when somebody is suffering from cancer but not when someone is infected with HIV. Maintaining confidentiality has not helped either in our fight against the spread of the disease.