STOP AIDS – Be aware, show you care – Bought to you by Health Promotion Board

First Published – 30 Nov 2006

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, an annual reminder that HIV/AIDS is not merely a disease that happens to others in another part of the world, but a worthy cause that we can all rally behind. We spoke to Dr Koh Yang Huang, Deputy Director for Communicable Disease Education at the Health Promotion Board, and Prof Roy Chan, President of Action for Aids about this year’s AIDS campaign and the state of HIV/AIDS in Singapore.

DR KOH YANG HUANG

What does the Health Promotion Board hope to achieve with this year’s campaign?

Unlike previous years, this year’s World AIDS Day campaign goes beyond telling people what HIV/AIDS is about, how it is spread and its protective measures. It encourages people to show care, concern and support to those living with the disease. Only then will more people come forward to seek HIV testing and treatment.

Some of the highlights of the campaign include the Singapore AIDS conference, which will address the issues and challenges which different segments of the society face in relation to AIDS.

Red ribbon pamphlet stands will also be placed at shopping centres and retail outlets. These pamphlets will contain information about the modes of HIV/AIDS transmission, preventive measures as well as the importance of regular HIV screening for people at risk.

How serious is the HIV/AIDS situation in Singapore?

Since the first case of HIV was reported in 1985, the number of HIV-infected Singaporeans has steadily increased to 2,703 cases as of December 2005. Every year, we are seeing more new cases. Last year, there were 317 new cases, compared with 311 in 2004 and 242 in 2003.

In the first six months of this year, there were 149 new cases, bringing the total number of HIV-infected Singaporeans to 2,852. It won’t be long before the total number of HIV-infected Singaporeans crosses the 3,000 mark. The United Nations estimates that the actual figure for Singapore is three times higher.

Of these, 89 per cent of them are men and 11 per cent women; 56 per cent are single while 32 per cent are married; and 77 per cent are between 20 to 49 years of age.*

In Singapore, the main mode of transmission is through sexual intercourse, accounting for at least 90 per cent of all HIV infections. It is important to highlight that over two-thirds of HIV/AIDS infections are through heterosexual intercourse because some people still believe that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease.

What are some of the major challenges in the ongoing fight against HIV?

Many business and community leaders still do not perceive HIV/AIDS as a serious threat, especially in HIV lowprevalence countries like Singapore. This is incorrect, considering that Singapore is at the centre of an Asian AIDS epidemic.

Furthermore, globalisation, budget travel, the lack of an AIDS vaccine and a generation of youths reaching sexual maturity and practising high risk sexual practices, will all have an impact on the rising trend of HIV/AIDS here.

There is also a need to constantly reinvent our health education and communication strategies. It is not enough to convey facts and figures. We must find ways to touch and convince people, so that they will sit up and take HIV/AIDS seriously.

How are local companies and organisations pitching in to support the cause?

More companies are waking up to the potentially-serious threat posed by HIV/AIDS. A decade ago, fewer than 10 companies would have responded to our call for workplace HIV/AIDS education.

This year, 20 companies have implemented RESPECT since it was launched in April. RESPECT, which stands for Rallying Employers to Support the Prevention, Education and Control of STIs/HIV/AIDS, is a comprehensive worksite AIDS education programme.

It engages employees in lively, thought-provoking debates and discussions through activities such as Love Talk and Bridges of Hope (peer-led training on HIV/AIDS).

The AIDS Business Alliance (ABA), which was formed in November 2005, has also been making steady progress in encouraging their CEOs and business leaders to organise HIV/AIDS education programmes.

*Refer to www.moh.gov.sg for details.

PROF ROY CHAN

What are some of the things that can be done to change the public’s misconceptions about HIV/AIDS?

I know of several instances of people abandoning safe sex once they fall in love and enter into a “stable” relationship. They forget about the possibility of contracting HIV, so they stop using condoms for protection.

This may often be a mistake. A person can look perfectly healthy on the outside and tell you that they have not had any other sexual partners, but you must be objective. It is advisable for sexually active people to get tested first and to use protection until all the tests are clear.

Another common misconception is that condoms are not effective. There is abundant evidence to show that when used correctly and consistently, condoms are in fact very effective in preventing HIV, gonorrhoea, syphilis, and a number of other sexually-transmitted infections. People need to practise how to use them properly. They should also be instructed on the choice of water-based (not oil-based) lubricants. Women must be empowered to insist on condom use to prevent HIV and other STIs, and unwanted pregnancies.

Many people are afraid to get tested or to seek medical treatment for their condition. They fear being recognised to be at risk or to be known as being HIV-infected. We must reduce the pervasive stigma and discrimination that surrounds HIV/AIDS if we are to successfully prevent HIV transmission. Stigma drives the epidemic underground, and makes it that much harder to reach and help those most at risk.

Are Singaporeans receptive to talking about AIDS in public?

I don’t think Singaporeans are generally very interested in talking about AIDS, whether in public or in private. It is not a natural thing to do, nor is it something that is uppermost on their minds.

However, we have to educate and remind people to broach the topic with potential sexual partners. Young people must be taught about AIDS, STIs and safe sex before they start contemplating sex.

They need to be provided with the necessary skills and knowledge that empowers them to say “this is far enough” or “I will not have sex without a condom”.

What else can be done to improve the care given to AIDS patients in Singapore?

Those at risk should know about the availability of effective AIDS treatments. A recent study in the US showed that the average lifespan of a person with HIV is now 24 years.

Here in Singapore, there are many people with HIV infection who are fit, have been in good health and who have led normal, productive lives for many years with the right treatment.

However, the cost of such treatment remains high in Singapore. An average triple drug combination costs up to $1,200 a month. There are a few sources of assistance available for needy patients.

– TODAY