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HIV-infected volunteers help prevent AIDS in Laos
05 November 2004
by Aleta Moriarty

Vientiane, Lao PDR: Thirty five year-old, Poypilin Keosysome worked as a sex worker for 12 years. Recently, she found out she was HIV-positive.

“When I first discovered I was HIV positive, I was really depressed and retreated from the world,” said Poypilin. “It took a long time for my friends to understand, so I just kept myself in isolation.”

Now Poypilin works as a volunteer with the Lao Red Cross. She travels to villages to talk about HIV/AIDS, safe sex and what it is like being HIV positive. Her discussions help break down many of the stereotypes, stigma and myths that surround AIDS and HIV in Laos.

Poyplin has found that volunteering has helped lift her spirits, her talks with communities has generated positive reactions. “When I go and talk to communities, it draw people together and many people come forward offering support,” said Poyplin.

"I don't want AIDS to spread through Lao communities, so it is important for us all to help one another," she said. "I really enjoy the work, it makes me feel good about myself that I am helping and am part of something," said Poypilin. "As long as I stay healthy I will continue volunteering." 

The spirit of volunteerism is very strong is Laos, especially in the field of HIV/AIDS.

Anouxay Bounthaluexay, Senior Project Officer for the Lao Red Cross believes that volunteers like Poypilin are fundamental to the success of their work.

Since 1993, Australian Red Cross and Laos Red Cross have been working in partnership to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and to promote care and support for people affected by HIV/AIDS in the country. The current Red Cross care and support programme focuses on home visits, providing care and informal counselling.

The Lao Red Cross has recruited a number of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to work with them. “These volunteers provide a strong voice to the issue,” said Anouxay.

The communities and schools that the volunteers speak at have otherwise had very little education in the area of HIV/AIDS. “Usually these people have never met anyone who is HIV positive or has AIDS and this creates a lot of discrimination about the disease,”said Anouxay. “The volunteers help to break down a lot of these prejudices and create awareness of the preventive measures that need to be taken.”

Another success story of the Lao Red Cross volunteer project is Kitnoy Pongdet.

After working for 10 years as a singer in Bangkok, 30-year-old Kitnoy returned to his home town of Savvanakhet. Kitnoy has been HIV positive for four years.

Kitnoy works now at the Savvanakhet Hospital as a volunteer. At the hospital he counsels HIV positive patients about their treatment and provides them with information on how to cope with the illness.

"Today, there are a lot of people who are really desperate for information on HIV/AIDS and need help and support," he said. "I completely understand the whole experience and I want to open myself up to society to help others that in the same situation."

Kitnoy's job as a counselor has given him a renewed sense of responsibility.

“I love helping people,” he said. “Being a volunteer is very important to me as I know what it feels like to have HIV and I feel I can really understand how other people feel.”

The recruitment of people infected with HIV/AIDS is becoming increasingly important in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and care. The global initiative of Greater Involvement of People Living With HIV and AIDS (GIPA), established in 1994, was supported by the Lao PDR government at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001.

GIPA works on the principle that there is no substitute for direct experience and aims to ensure greater involvement by people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. This includes creating a space for individuals to use their experience of living with or being affected by HIV/AIDS in the greater response to the epidemic. It also aims to give a human face and voice to the epidemic in the minds of people not directly touched by it.

The Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Laos is currently focusing on involving more people living with or affected by AIDS/HIV in the field.

Mika Niskanen, a United Nations Volunteer, is working as an advisor to UNAIDS in Laos for the past two years. “In order to effectively prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS it is very important that HIV positive people are involved,” said Mika. He is now working on a programme to strengthen the involvement of HIV-infected people in combatting the disease by recruiting them as volunteers.

“This project will be very important for UNAIDS as it promotes support and care, while empowering HIV positive people,” he said.