U.S. AIDS activist encourages Taiwan to stay ahead of disease

Regan Hofmann

Taiwan may never have to face an AIDS epidemic if the government and the public stay informed and committed to the fight against the disease, said Regan Hofmann, a U.S. AIDS activist and editor-in-chief of POZ magazine said yesterday in Taipei.
Hofmann was 28 when she tested HIV positive in 1996. For a decade, the journalist remained silent about her illness, terrified of losing everything she loved. Even when she did talk about her health status in POZ, an award-wining magazine for people living with AIDS, she did so anonymously.
In April 2006, she finally went public when she became editor-in-chief of POZ. Since then, Hofmann has been an ardent soldier in the battle against AIDS and a vocal activist in safeguarding the rights of people living with the disease.
"Taiwan is in a wonderful position. You are ahead of the epidemic. You have an opportunity, unlike America which is already deep into the epidemic, to prevent a disease that is 100 preventable," she said.
The AIDS prevention effort must be a unified one among the government, non-government organizations, and the general public, she stressed.
According to Department of Health statistics, currently Taiwan has 13, 945 confirmed cases of AIDS, which represents an average of 8 new cases reported each day. But the actual figure could be five to eight times higher than the recorded number, with a 20 percent annual growth rate.
Unlike the U.S. or Africa where unprotected sex is the main cause of AIDS, transmission of the disease in Taiwan is mostly through contaminated needle sharing. The largest population of AIDS victims in Taiwan is among men between 20 to 29 years old.
The hardest part about having the disease, Hofmann said, is the social stigma that is attached to being HIV positive.
"AIDS doesn't discriminate, people discriminate," she once said.
The stigma that Hofmann suffers is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in Taiwan's fight against the disease, said Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), a professor at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.
"Eighty years ago, leprosy patients were shunned and tucked away into a corner of the society. Now looking back, we are full of regret and shame at what we did. However, if we now treat AIDS patients in the same way we treated lepers 80 years ago, then we would a society of hypocrites," Lung said.
Nicole Yang, a local AIDS activist and the founder of Harmony Home for people living with AIDS, said that a few years ago a man jumped to his death from the roof of National Taiwan University Hospital when he was diagnosed with HIV because he felt hopeless.
Early this year, a group of angry homeowners threatened to burn down the hospice and throw its residents out on the streets unless it was relocated to another the neighborhood, she recalled.
Love, tolerance and education, are the keys to ending the discrimination against people with the disease, said Yang, who has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to the cause.
From a business perspective, ending discrimination against people with AIDS is simply a matter of good management, said Dr. Anthony Pramuairatana, program director of the Thailand-based Asia Pacific Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. Taiwan desperately needs a leader from the business world to champion non-discriminatory policies in the workplace, he said.
Wiping out prejudice against those living with AIDS in the workplace will boost the morale of employees because it would discourage things like office gossip, he said, adding that with adequate health care, people living with HIV/AIDS can still be productive workers.
While in Taiwan, Pramuairatana is scheduled to meet with Ministry of Economic Affairs officials to discuss the benefits of raising AIDS awareness in the job force.
Nicolas Papp, director of the American Culture Center under the American Institute in Taiwan which sponsored Hofmann's trip, pointed out that the majority of Taiwanese do not get tested regularly for HIV, a practice that is crucial in curbing the disease.