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Shame, denial surround HIV/AIDS in Aceh

Jakarta Post - December 1, 2008

Hotli Simanjuntak, Banda Aceh – Maimun panicked when a doctor told him he was infected with HIV, detected when he went to give blood for one of his relatives.

At the time, the fisherman from Tapaktuan district in South Aceh, thought of HIV/AIDS as an embarrassing disease, often viewed as an indelible shame in Aceh, where Islamic sharia law is applied.

He felt he could not bear it if his immediate family, and even more distant relatives, had to feel ashamed or suffered any kind of discrimination.

"I felt so ashamed then and started to keep away from my community once I learned this virus was inside me and damaging my body," Maimun told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of a World AIDS Day event in Banda Aceh on Sunday.

Maimun became a social recluse, trying to hide his illness to avoid the social stigma. He even sought to hide his affliction from his family.

As a result, Maimun received no medical treatment for his illness for 10 years after the doctor announced he was HIV positive.

Maimun believes he picked up the virus in 1989, when he used to sail some distance to go fishing. He often dropped into Thailand and did drugs without realizing the full risk.

As years passed, his family came to learn of his illness and decided to send him to a doctor for treatment instead of leaving him alone. He thanked his family for their acceptance and for encouraging him to rebuild his life.

"And I thank God that currently hospitals in Banda Aceh have special facilities to treat patients with HIV/AIDS," Maimun said, adding that people in his area now knew there was no need to ostracize people living with HIV/AIDS because they could get medical treatment and stay healthy.

This confidence became a turning point in his life. He went on to join Medan Aceh Partnerships (MAP), an organization concerned with building public awareness about HIV/AIDS, so people will not discriminate against those living with HIV/AIDS but rather support them in their efforts to be healthy.

Baby Rivona, MAP program manager, has experienced this herself. She said she and her friends had to reassure people in Aceh that people living with HIV/AIDS needed help from their family and society to regain their health and their life.

"Many people in Aceh say there is no need to establish NGOs like ours because nobody in Aceh has this disease.

"Many people living with HIV/AIDS from Aceh have to be transferred to other regions to find a hospital that provides facilities to treat them," Baby said.

"Some of them refused to be treated in Aceh because they were so ashamed of having the virus."

Five regencies in Aceh currently provide facilities to treat people living with HIV/AIDS. According to data from the Aceh AIDS Commission, as of October 2008, there were 25 people in 13 regencies and cities in Aceh with HIV/AIDS this year. Nine of them have died.

The number of people with HIV/AIDS has risen 350 percent in 2008 compared with 2006 figures.