Nguyen Anh Phong, a 41-year-old Ho Chi Minh City resident, has spent the last seven years of his life helping HIV patients in the city’s Cu Chi District cope with the fear and social stigma of living with the disease.
Phong first got involved with HIV patient outreach in 2008, when he joined a 15-member group whose primary goal was to limit the disease from spreading between high-risk individuals, such as sex workers and drug users, by collecting used syringes and handing out condoms.
When he became the group’s leader two years later, he redrew their approach to HIV outreach to include better organized activities and cooperative programs with the Ho Chi Minh City government’s HIV prevention agency.
Though busy with the small office supplies firm he operates to support himself and his mother, Phong still finds the time to fundraise and offer counseling for the organization – both of which often lead him to situations that would dispirit even the most enthusiastic works.
Once, a family went so far as to sue him after their son, an HIV patient, committed suicide the same night Phong had met with him to offer counseling on the importance of using HIV medications.
According to Phong, the most difficult aspect of HIV counseling is building trust in infected patients, many of whom are very guarded due to the social stigma of living with the disease.
“Once I convince them to sit down and listen, they usually take my advice and come to the realization that they are able to live relatively normal lives,” he explained.
“Most HIV patients really just need someone to talk to. We sit together, hold hands, and drink water. Those simple acts can bring them great happiness.”
Phong says his ultimate goal is to generate a positive outlook and provide encouragement to those living with HIV.
“I’ve met too many people living with HIV who are despondent. They act as if the sky were going to fall and refuse to take their medicine. What they need is a lifeline, and it’s important to throw them one,” he said.
And Phong has been successful in throwing lifelines.
Phong shared the story of a male prostitute in Ho Chi Minh City who, in an act of revenge, attempted to transmit the HIV virus to as many sexual partners as possible because he himself had contracted the disease from a partner.
But with Phong’s intervention, the man realized how important it was to inform his ‘victims’ and suggest that they get tested.
In another case, Phong convinced a retired doctor to cover the medical expenses of a family of three who all had been diagnosed with HIV.
“They now live very happily, like any other family,” he shared.
For Phong, offering free counseling is an essential part of life, and his service is not lost on the community.
Last year, he was recognized as a hero by the Asia Pacific Coalition for Male Sexual Health.
But even with his success, Phong says society is still far from tearing down the walls of discrimination which surround Vietnam’s HIV-positive community.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to change social opinions. I can only do my best and hope that everyone around me develops sympathy for those living with HIV.
"Being supportive and doing good deeds can help remove the stigma.”