A file photo of Indonesian students holding a demonstration to mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, 2013. (ucanews.com photo)
Stefano, 53, [not his real name] is one of more than a thousand people living with HIV/AIDS in Christian majority East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia's southernmost province.
He was diagnosed at a government hospital in Kupang, the province capital, after having suffered diarrhea, headache and high fever every day for three months. When referred by the doctor for a medical check-up he discovered he was HIV positive.
"I wanted to commit suicide after I was diagnosed four years ago," Stefano told ucanews.com. But with the support of a priest "I accepted my condition. Later, I won the support of my wife," he said.
Now with the assistance of a local non-government organization Stefano daily takes antiretroviral drugs that suppresses the virus and stops the progression of the disease and prevents it from being transmitted to his wife. The medicine is financed by the government and distributed by NGOs to communities. Stefano need never worry about cost or access to the drug. "I'm very lucky I discovered it early on as I can survive now," he said.
Stefano is one of 4,944 people who are recorded as living with HIV/AIDS in the province, as reported by the AIDS Commission of the East Nusa Tenggara bureau for the 10-year period to May 2017.
The commission reported that the virus spread across 21 districts in the province, of which, 2,325 were HIV cases and 2,619 were cases of AIDS that killed more than 1,287 people. AIDS is the stage when the immune system is too weak to fight off the HIV infection.
The first recorded HIV case in the province was a migrant worker in 1997. Worryingly, the number of cases has climbed 40-50 percent every year since 2012.
Stefano said he contracted HIV while working as a migrant worker in Malaysia in 1998-2001. He's not certain of the origin, but during that time, he often had unprotected sex with sex workers. "My wife and I agreed not to tell our children and neighbors about my condition because I am afraid about being ostracized by them," said Stefano who now raises goats in his farm in Kupang.
Local churches are very concerned about the spread of the disease so they conduct widespread awareness campaigns in schools, parishes and churches through seminars, counseling, workshops and the distribution of pamphlets. "Our diocese has organized awareness campaigns in parishes and basic communities about the incurable disease through seminars, pamphlets on the dangers of HIV/AIDS and counseling, Bishop Dominikus Saku of Atambua in West Timor said.
He said the virus was spreading quickly through the region after many migrant workers returned from working in foreign locations such as Malaysia. "Some 80 percent of migrant workers who returned to their hometown had contracted the virus," the bishop told ucanews.com.
According to local authority data from 2016, some 150,000 migrant workers from the province went to work abroad.
Alongside working with other dioceses in the province, Bishop Saku also teamed up with local and national Catholic institutions. "This coordinated efforts include six dioceses and NGOs in the province," he said.
The local spread of the virus may have been exacerbated by the unhygienic sharing of needles for drugs and the lack of education and awareness about the practices of safe sex. HIV can only be transmitted from a person with HIV to another through direct contact of bodily fluids such as blood, semen and breast milk. However, if a person is diagnosed and undergoes antiretroviral treatment, onward transmission of HIV is prevented.
Holy Spirit Sister Sesilia Ketut, a member of the provincial AIDS Commission, admitted that lack of education about these issues has contributed to the spread in the region. Every month at least 50 people in Atambua attend regular medical checkups. If they are diagnosed HIV positive they would be treated secretly, she said.
The first case of HIV in Indonesia was recorded in Bali in April 1987. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, the number currently stands at 276,000 people living with HIV out of which 78,000 have AIDS.
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