Saigon: discriminated by family and society, people with HIV/AIDS helped by Catholics
by Nguyen Hung
The number of HIV-positive cases is constantly rising, especially in Vietnam's northern provinces. At present, 213,000 people have been infected with the virus, left alone and shunned by their families. Thanks to the efforts of Card Pham Minh Man, the Archdiocese of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) has adopted pro-active programmes of support and help, for Christians and non-Christians.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - More and more in Vietnam, people with HIV/AIDS are discriminated, isolated and ostracised by their families and society, and the problem is getting worse with 29 new cases every day. According to Vietnam government data, some 213,413 people have contracted the virus so far - in 63,373 cases, the infection has developed into full-blown AIDS. In all, 65,133 deaths have been reported.

The problem is increasingly serious in the country's northern provinces, especially in Dien Bien Phu, which has the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV-positive rate: 980 per 100,000.

The number of patients is also up in Vietnam's two main cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the authorities are hard-pressed to control its progress.

A social worker in Saigon, who asked not to be named, told AsiaNews that government programmes are short gaps. Doctors lack an adequate "methodology" to deal with people with HIV, "lacking knowledge and skills" to prepare effective programmes of intervention.

Making matters worse, "indifference" is growing towards the disease and people living with it in a society that is becoming increasingly consumer-oriented, driven by a quest for personal wellbeing and wealth.

Against this bleak background, Catholics stand out for their work in the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City. Here, priests, nuns and lay people have been actively involved since 2004, providing medical and psychological support to patients and their family thanks to an assistance programme launched by Card Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man that began in Ho Chi Minh City and later spread to neighbouring provinces.

Three young HIV/AIDS patients spoke to AsiaNews about their situation. "At the beginning, we kept the disease secret," the three said. "We did not tell anything to our family."

When they did, instead of support and help, they found themselves more isolated. "After we told them the truth, we were not allowed to sleep at home, eat with them, or use the bathroom," they said.

Eventually, they were welcomed and sheltered by the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City through its assistance programme for HIV-positive people.

In another case, a young man spoke about the comfort and sense of welcome people receive, even just by listening to a Mass, praying "for our friends who have already gone."

At the end of one of the services, AsiaNews met Fr Paul, who represents the Diocesan Pastoral Committee for the care of people with HIV/AIDS.

"We are working on different things to care and support patients and so ease their suffering, both physical and mental," he explained "This way they can feel a bit of peace and happiness in God, be they Catholic or not."