|Anh Quốc Kiệt (in blue T-shirt) consults with community member. -- Photo by Thùy Giang/Vietnamplus.vn|
Kiệt lives in Ninh Hòa Township in the southern central province of Khánh Hòa. He is a member of Sóng Biển (Sea Waves) group – a community organisation that promotes HIV/AIDS prevention among prostitutes, drug-addicts, and gay men.
Over the last three years, Kiệt has built relationships with 180 gay men in the community, 12 of whom are HIV-positive. He encourages them to practice safe sex, provides information about STDs and encourages them to seek testing, and helps them pursue lives of meaning after a diagnosis, online newspaper Vietnamplus reported in a recent story.
His work is increasingly important: According to latest figures released by the Health Ministry this year, the proportion of HIV-positive gay men has increased, while the number of HIV-positive prostitutes and drug addicts has declined in recent years.
As of May this year, there were 209,754 HIV-positive people and 90,882 died of AIDS since the disease was first diagnosed in the country.
In Khánh Hòa Province, gay people accounted for 18.8 per cent out of a total of 101 HIV-positive individuals, increasing 11.3 per cent against 2015, said Dr. Trần Văn Tin, director of the provincial HIV/AIDS Prevention Centre.
In response, public health officials have dedicated more resources to the high-risk group of gay men.
Sóng Biển is one of three such groups in Khánh Hòa Province. The 18-member organisation was established in 2015 with funds from the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS.
Kiệt and his colleagues work at the grass-roots level. They are in constant contact with individuals at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. They daily lives are occupied with the struggles and fears of others.
“Persuading a person who I did not know before to take an HIV test has been a really hard journey”, Kiệt said. “To go from strangers to friends, sometimes becoming even closer than family because I know their secrets, I had to create absolute trust.”
Serving his community
He feels he is more effective in his work because he understands the continuing difficulty of being gay in a conservative country.
“Homosexual men always feel an inferiority complex”, Kiệt said. “They are hardly able to express their real sexuality, even to family members. So many people have been angry and resentful for a long time, and they respond with a promiscuous sexual life”, he said.
This makes them more susceptible to HIV/AIDS.
“Because I am a homosexual man too, I feel and sympathise with their pains,” Kiệt said. “So I talk with them easily.”
Kiệt said many HIV-positive men told him that they felt despair. Sometimes they contemplated taking revenge on life by deliberately infecting their partners with HIV.
“I saw many people wanted to kill themselves when they tested positive for HIV,” Kiệt said. “I had to find any way to relieve their fear and bring them back to life.”
For the last three years, Kiệt’s life has been full of journeys which he organised for HIV/AIDS-positive men to find encouragement and consolation. The groups take trips to mountains, beaches and islands to help them release their dispiritedness and desperation.
He has successfully persuaded hundreds of gay men to complete HIV tests and seek treatment.
To do his job effectively, he must reach out to strangers and become a trusted friend. He makes face-to-face contacts at events and introduces himself on Facebook, the messaging app Zalo, and online forums of the gay community.
Kiệt recalled one case in which it took a great deal of time to persuade a young man to take an HIV test and seek treatment.
“He was a 21-year-old young man. He was a callboy”, Kiệt recalled.
“The boy had not used condoms, so he lived under a cloud of fear that he might be infected with HIV, but was not brave enough to do a test. He always wanted to end his life by jumping down from a high mountain”, he said.
The boy lived 28km from Kiệt’s house. For a month, Kiệt visited the boy everyday to persuade him to do a test.
His efforts were not in vain. After six month’s of treatment, the boy’s health had improved and he had renewed optimism about life. He is now working in a local restaurant.
Everyday, Kiệt makes phone calls or attends coffee dates to comfort and advise men living with HIV.
Over last three years, Kiệt has successfully convinced seven HIV-positive gay men to obtain treatment.
“I just want to tell gay men, ‘You should do everything you like but you should be healthy’”, Kiệt said.