Drug Free, Employed and Poised for Life
March 13, 2007, —
Truong* and Vo* are in love and looking toward their future.
They have a lot in common, after all. Both are 26 years old and have jobs that help people in their community improve their lives. They also have shared many struggles. Both are former heroine addicts and are HIV positive.
Truong and Vo work at the new Hoc Mon District Community Center in western Ho Chi Minh City. Funded by Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Norway, the center was founded in January 2007 to assist individuals who have HIV or who are at high risk. With the help of the center, people learn to handle the social, psychological and economic effects of HIV.
More than half the people living with HIV and AIDS in Vietnam are drug users. Along with sex workers, these are the people most vulnerable to HIV here. In an attempt to stop illegal drug use and sex work, the Vietnamese government puts arrestees in what they call drug rehabilitation centers. Unfortunately, the reality of these centers is that they provide little education or rehabilitation.
Truong and Vo both spent five years in a rehabilitation center. After their release, they faced enormous obstacles, including remaining drug free and finding employment and housing. They also had to find long-term health care. In Vietnam, people living with HIV and AIDS are often ostracized because they are seen as immoral and disease carriers. As a result, people with the disease often don't seek care until they are extremely sick. Many die alone and in pain.
The Hoc Mon Community Center is working with the local government to change this by providing an immediate health care entry point for people with HIV. A variety of services are offered, including voluntary HIV testing, counseling, educational activities, and information about health and social services available.
Playing a Vital Role
Plans are underway to equip the center with information about vocational training and to organize activities that generate income, such as making Christmas ornaments. With an on-site coffee shop, the center will serve all community members, regardless of their health status.
People living with HIV and AIDS will play a vital role in the center's management and programming by counseling clients on drug relapse prevention, accompanying them to the nearby outpatient clinic and assisting them with antiretroviral medications. Counselors will also provide community members with accurate information about how HIV is spread, minimizing misconceptions that are often at the root of stigma.
Vo and Truong live with Truong's mother in a modest dwelling. Before learning of plans for the Hoc Mon Community Center, Vo refused to get tested for HIV. Without the counseling, medication and peer support available at the center, Vo says that knowing her status would have seemed like a death sentence. Now, she and Truong are trailblazers for Hoc Mon, and for all of those places in Vietnam where people living with HIV and AIDS still suffer in fear and despondency.
More importantly, Vo and Truong are now drug free, employed and poised for life.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.