Vietnam Expands Protection for People with HIV Vietnam is embarking on a campaign to end discrimination against people with AIDS and HIV. A new law will give new rights and protections to people with HIV, and the country is expanding the number of people getting treatment for AIDS.
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Vietnam Expands Protection for People with HIV

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Vietnam Expands Protection for People with HIV

Vietnam Expands Protection for People with HIV

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And let's report on the efforts to manage the effects of another worldwide health concern.

Vietnam wants to end discrimination against people with AIDS and HIV. It passed some of the world's strongest laws to protect their rights as patients and as employees. And it's expanding the number of people getting treatment for the disease.

NPR's Richard Knox went to Vietnam recently to see how the efforts are going.

RICHARD KNOX: Cu Chi is about an hour's drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Tourists come here to see the tunnels dug by the Vietcong during the war with America. Down the road from the tunnels is a garden-like sanctuary called the Mai Hoa AIDS Center.

(Soundbite of clacking sound)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KNOX: It's run by a quiet-spoken, Roman Catholic nun, Sister Tue Linh.

Sister TUE LINH (Roman Catholic Nun, Mai Hoa AIDS Center): (Through translator) We serve AIDS patients who have no home and no family to live with. In many cases, they were rejected by their families. Before they came here, many didn't even live like human beings.

KNOX: Because of that stigma, it wasn't easy to start this place. One province rejected Sister Tue Linh's plan. Then she get the land in Cu Chi.

Sister TUE LINH: (Through translator) But the local authorities did not want us, because they fear that HIV was related to drug users. The former prime minister told the authorities this land was our land. He said we defeated the French, we defeated the Americans, so why should we fear AIDS? That's how we came into being.

KNOX: Dr. Eric Krakauer of Harvard Medical School says when he first met Sister Tue Linh five years ago, her center was a place for homeless people with AIDS came to die.

Dr. ERIC KRAKAUER (Harvard Medical School): They had a special room, or a couple of special rooms set aside that were referred to as screaming rooms - a place where patients who are in extreme distress were taken so as not to upset the other patients.

KNOX: Now that the Mai Hoa AIDS Center provides treatment, hardly anyone dies. But its patients are still rejected by their families and communities.

Dr. KRAKAUER: Your kids might have trouble going to school. You might have had difficulties selling your vegetables in the market. People sometimes stayed away out of fear - not only from people who had HIV infection, but also from the family members.

KNOX: Vietnamese officials aim to stamp out that stigma. Last year, experts warned Vietnam that it could see a million new infections over the next few years if it didn't take strong action. That galvanized the national assembly, which passed a comprehensive new law on AIDS and HIV. It just went into effect.

(Soundbite of pages flipping)

KNOX: Krakauer paged through the statute recently. It's one of the strongest pieces of AIDS legislation in the world.

Dr. KRAKAUER: This is really quite good. Under prohibited act: refusing to provide medical examination or treatment to a patient for knowing or suspecting that such person is infected with HIV - I think that's a stronger prohibition against refusing to provide care than exists in Western countries.

KNOX: Under the law, relatives, neighbors and friends are expected to support and care for people with HIV. But the law goes beyond just telling people not to reject those with AIDS.

Dr. KRAKAUER: This is really important: not allowed to terminate job contract of an employee or cause difficulties to this person in his or her work on the ground that such person is infected with HIV. That is really powerful.

KNOX: In most places, social change isn't as easy as passing a law. But in Vietnam, from the national assembly down to the local commune village in Hamlet, things are highly organized. So when government wants things to change, they can make it happen.

And as more people get treatment for AIDS, attitudes change. The disease is less fearsome.

(Soundbite of bird chirping, children laughing)

KNOX: At the Mai Hoa AIDS Center, most of the orphans are already on treatment. A visitor gives one little girl a shiny trinket. She runs outdoors with it to a glass case containing row on row of ceramic urns - each one contains the ashes of someone who died here. The little girl stands on tiptoe to show the trinket to a photo on one particular urn, a picture of a young woman with long, dark hair.

Can you just ask the little girl who that is?

Sister TUE LINH: (Foreign language spoken). It's my mother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KNOX: Sister Tue Linh tells the little girl's story.

Sister TUE LINH: (Through translator) When she first came here, she had no name. So we named her Nguyen Gnoc To-Vi. She's 4 years old.

KNOX: Her mother owned a coffee shop. She got infected with HIV from her boyfriend, and the little girl got the virus during childbirth. Mother and daughter came here last April. Two months later, the mother was dead. She was 25.

(Soundbite of clacking sound)

Back in her office, Sister Tue Linh says her AIDS orphans are doing well with treatment. But they still aren't welcome in the local school, so a teacher comes here. Sister Tue Linh's worried that people being treated at Mai Hoa may have no place to go when they get better.

So she's planning a new venture: a little community of people with HIV next door to the treatment center, a place where her orphans can grow up, get married and grow their own vegetables.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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