Vietnamese ethnic woman asks U.N. "not to forget" HIV victims as funding dries up

By Kim Thuy   June 16, 2016 | 06:16 pm GMT+7
Vietnamese ethnic woman asks U.N. "not to forget" HIV victims as funding dries up
Lu Thi Thanh, a Thai ethnic minority and Vietnamese Deputy PM Vu Duc Dam at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Ending Aids. Photo by VGP/Dinh Nam

Lu Thi Thanh from the Thai ethnic group in Vietnam, who has lived with HIV for eight years and relies on ARV treatment, stepped onto the podium at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Ending Aids on June 9 to tell her survival story.

“I just want to say thank you, thank you so much everybody for giving me back my life, my hope and my future. And please do not forget us [people with HIV],” Thanh said at the meeting as reported on the Vietnamese government's portal.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam was also in attendance to help Thanh share her story. Thanh comes from the poor mountainous province of Dien Bien. She only found out that she had contracted HIV when her first husband died in 2009. Since then, Thanh has been on antiretroviral drugs (ARV) that help prolong and improve the quality of life for people infected with HIV.

Thanks to international support, HIV patients in Vietnam have had access to ARV drugs since 2004, and at present, between 800 and 1,000 new patients need ARV treatment each year.

However, international funding for Vietnam to buy ARV drugs has been gradually reduced and will end by 2017, posing a major challenge for the country's fight against the epidemic because at present those funds pay for about 95 percent of supplies.

"Should we reduce the support? No, we cannot and we do not have the right to do that," Deputy PM Dam told the conference.

He went on to explain how Thanh has become an active community worker, helping other people like her. “She is very much appreciated by the community,” he said.

In 2013, Thanh got married again to a man who is also a victim of HIV. In the deputy prime minister's words, a miracle happened a year later when she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

This miracle may never have happened had it not been for international and local efforts that have provided support for Thanh and her husband.

Not only that, Thanh and her husband are now able to work again and live like normal people. "This miracle was only made possible because of an internationally financed project in partnership with the local government and community. Without this, she would probably not be with us today. Many other people, including women and children, would not have been able to go to school, work, have families or even be alive," Dam said.

According to Ministry of Health's Vietnam Administration of HIV/AIDS Control (VAAC), the country has made great strides in HIV/AIDS prevention and control with the number of newly-infected people per year dropping from 18,000 in 2010 to some 10,000 in 2015. By May 2016, the total number of reported HIV-infected patients in the country was nearly 228,000, according to the General Statistics Office.

In 2016, the state budget for ARV has reached VND60 billion ($2.7 million), an increase of VND20 billion ($900,000) from last year, according to the Vietnam Social Insurance Agency. However, Dr. Nguyen Hoang Long, VAAC Director General, said during a roundtable discussion on October 1, 2015: "With the current 100,000 patients, Vietnam needs around VND420 billion for ARV each year."

Vietnam is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to commit to the global 90-90-90 treatment target of the United Nations, whereby 90 percent of people living with HIV know their status, 90 percent of people who know their HIV-positive status are accessing treatment and 90 percent of people on treatment have a suppressed viral load by 2020.