Thu, 04 Dec 2003

Lack of knowledge on AIDS causes stigma

Dewi Santoso, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia has a mountain to climb in its attempt to combat HIV/AIDS due to the long-standing stigma and discrimination against people living with the virus (PLWHA), observers say.

They agree that people's understanding that HIV/AIDS is a private matter has led to their resistance to collective measures against the virus.

"This has given people the justification to label PLWHA as sex workers or drug addicts," Samuel Nugraha of Pita, the support group for PLWHA, said on Wednesday.

As a result, he said, PLWHA were isolated, marginalized, discriminated against, and denied access to healthcare and work.

Data from the Spritia Foundation showed that based on interviews with PLWHA in 10 provinces in 2002, 31 percent of them had claimed they had been deprived of access to healthcare. Ironically, those who had refused to care for the PLWHA were health workers, who are supposed to provide treatments and healthcare to people without discrimination.

The stigma has also caused PLWHA difficulties in getting jobs.

"Thirty eight percent of PLWHA in Indonesia voiced their disappointment that their status was revealed to others, without their consent; some were refused work and some even fired," Samuel told The Jakarta Post.

Because of this, he said, PLWHA did not feel like obtaining information on preventing and treating the virus.

"The implication is that HIV/AIDS cases are increasing undetected," he said.

To tackle this problem, United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator Steven Allen said that more education on HIV/AIDS needed to be included in the curriculum in the teaching of reproductive health as early as junior high school.

"Government policies that relate to youth matters are of the most concern as schools do not provide adequate information on health issues," said Allen.

Data from the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA) shows that half of PLWHA, aged between 15 and 24, transmitted the virus due to their misconception of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. Indonesia's youths account for 30 percent of the total population.

The data further revealed that only 26 percent of PLWHA aged between 15 and 24, received information on reproductive health from their parents. Furthermore, 86 percent of these parents provided their children with information that was incorrect.

"The data shows us that advocacy to young people on the prevention of HIV/AIDS is needed for a better future as young people play the key role in this country within the next 10 years," UNFPA Director Bernard Coquelin told the Post.

Education alone is not enough. Religious leaders have contributed to the stigma.

"They see it as a moral issue. For them, HIV/AIDS is a sin that PLWHA have to bear for what they have done," Indonesian AIDS Foundation (YAI) chairman Sarsanto W. Sarwono said.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) demanded that the Indonesian government allocate US$6 million in the 2004 fiscal year to help the global initiative aimed at bringing antiretroviral treatment to PLWHA.

The fund will be added to WHO's total budget for antiretroviral treatment in Indonesia worth $27.6 million, of which $7 million will come from the Global Fund, $5.6 million from U.S. agencies and $9 million from international non- governmental organizations.

WHO needs $5,5 billion to fund the program worldwide, targeting three million PLWHA for the next two years.