Unceasing effort to save Timor-Leste youth from HIV

If the spread of the virus is not effectively dealt with in the impoverished country, it will become a huge problem
Unceasing effort to save Timor-Leste youth from HIV

Sister Prisca dos Santos (center) poses with students and government staff after a Mass dedicated to HIV/AIDS patients in Dili (Photo by Thomas Ora)

Nothing unusual happened when Aitarak — not his real name — moved from Timor-Leste to Malang in Indonesia's East Java province to study law, three years before the country's independence referendum.

Things became difficult for him when conflict broke out at home during the referendum in 1999, forcing his family to stop sending him money. Aitarak then had to work in a bar, where he began taking drugs and later contracted HIV.

"The world was crumbling upon me," Aitarak, 41, told ucanews.com, recalling the day he was diagnosed with HIV in 2000 and the sense of shame, guilt and loneliness he felt, afraid to tell about his status to his family.

For the past 17 years, Aitarak has worked with a non-profit organization in Timor-Leste, which focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention. After years of hard work, the organization recently appointed him to program manager. Through the organization, he wants the young people of Timor-Leste to stay away from drugs and casual sex that can lead to HIV/AIDS.

"I want to make sure that other people will not fall into the same pit as I did," he said. Today he advocates for young people to avoid unsafe sex and drugs, and for married couples to remain faithful.

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Dealing with unawareness

Daniel Marcal, Executive Secretary of the National Commission of HIV/AIDS, said HIV cases in Timor-Leste began to emerge even before independence, starting with only a few cases. The number, however, has increased every year.

The commission reported last year that in the past 13 years more than 600 cases were discovered, of which 29 percent were young people aged 15-24, 59 percent were people aged 25-44 and 9 percent were people aged 45 years and older. The remaining percentages are children aged 14 years and younger.

However, these numbers are limited to data from hospitals and clinics. It is possible that the number is higher because many people do not report their HIV status. People with HIV live in almost all the 13 districts, but predominately in Dili, followed by Bobonaro, Kovalima-Suai on the border with Indonesia, Baucau, Oecusse, and Ermera, said Marcal.

"HIV in Timor-Leste is like the tip of an iceberg, which will be a huge problem later if it's not handled properly," said Marcal.

The government continues to fight the spread of HIV and every year it allocates about US $600,000 to clinics and groups dealing with treatment.

According to Marcal, the main contributing factors to the spread of HIV include poor education and a lack of understanding about the importance of healthy lifestyles.

"The easy availability of paid-for sex makes it worse," which is rampant he said adding that most sex workers in Timor-Leste are young girls coming from poor families and also from the Indonesian border district of Atambua on West Timor.

The commission will sign an agreement with the Indonesian government this year to monitor the movement of people across the broader to minimize the spread of HIV in border areas.



Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili said the Catholic Church is saddened and alarmed by the large number of young people contracting HIV.

"To those with HIV, you may not lose hope, but believe in God," Bishop Da Silva said during a Mass dedicated for HIV/AIDS patients in December.

"To families and communities, please embrace people with HIV and not discriminate against them."

Holy Spirit Sister Prisca dos Santos, the manager of Dili Rest Home, a house for people with HIV/AIDS, said that since its formation in 2011, the center has not only provided service for patients but also counseling for the families.

However, the nuns will only allow one person in the family to know about it; the one who will continuously monitor his or her HIV positive sibling.

"Because if many people know, they will be ousted from the community," said Sister Dos Santos.

Some female patients helped by the center have been living with HIV for many years and are actively working in shops, restaurants, and are housewives, while male patients work as drivers and laborers.

Since its establishment six years ago, Dili Rest Home has helped more than 500 people, not only giving them medicines but also teaching them basic skills such as sewing, making herbal medicines and baking cakes.

The result of their labor is sold to the public and the money is given to them to pay for transport to clinics or to buy daily needs at home.

"With this kind of help we try to restore their self esteem," Sister Dos Santos said.

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