by Luu Van Dat
HCM CITY (VNS) — His plan to study abroad collapsed just a few hours before an interview at the US embassy in Ha Noi after his father caught him using drugs in a hotel restroom.
Nguyen Thanh Hoa, 36, a former drug user who has HIV and hepatitis B and C, recently recalled the incident from 19 years ago with pain palpable in his eyes.
Hoa – he asked not to be identified by his real name since the stigma against HIV/AIDS remains in Viet Nam — saw his life change totally, and he became a peer educator rather than a doctor with a US degree.
"My father was not at all angry when he found me using drugs that day; he was upset. He asked me to suspend the plan to go abroad and go instead to a rehabilitation centre."
At that time his father had hopes that some day his only son would kick his drug addiction and resume his education. But Hoa destroyed all those hopes: he had to be admitted to public and private rehabilitation centres at least 30 times and was later found infected with HIV.
Hoa cannot forget how he got caught up in the world of drugs.
In 1993, when he was a 14 year-old schoolboy and meritorious student for several consecutive years, he met some strangers from Hai Phong in his neighbourhood.
They offered him and some others in the area some free heroin to smoke with cigarettes saying it would make him energetic and smarter.
"At that time I had no idea about the danger of heroin. I thought it was the same as cigarettes. After that time they gave me heroin a couple of times more."
Once his mother found some heroin in a pocket while washing his clothes, and he lied to her that it was a medicine belonging to his friend. Having no idea about drugs, she believed him.
From using heroin, he turned to injecting drugs, sharing needles with friends. Little did he or they worry about the risk of contracting HIV this way.
But when some of them tested positive for HIV, Hoa began to worry. One day he decided to get himself tested at the Pasteur Institute. His father said he would come along.
"I prepared myself mentally for the worst."
They went to get the test results. He had HIV.
"I felt sad after getting the result, but did not cry at the Pasteur Institute."
But that night he cried alone sitting in his balcony.
Worse was to come.
He did not stop using drugs or sharing needles. The only concession he made was to shoot himself last, thinking that way he was protecting his friends from his HIV. He ended up contracting both hepatitis B and C.
Life with HIV
A friend and reformed drug user came to meet Hoa a few months later and suggested he should play online games instead of using drugs, hoping he would become addicted to something less dangerous.
He tried but failed to get hooked on games.
His life changed when he once went to the District 4 Preventive Health Centre's HIV/AIDS Counselling and Community Support. There he got methadone and ARV treatment and met and received support from other former drug users.
Gradually he gave up drugs, though there is the occasional recidivism, according to his doctor.
Realising that the lack of knowledge about drugs and HIV/AIDS had destroyed his life, Hoa wanted to become a peer educator to provide information to and help other people in a similar situation.
He often visits places where people buy drugs and coffee shops to befriend other drug users and warn them about drugs and HIV.
"Most people think I am a policeman. Some run away on seeing me."
But with his looks and needle scars on both arms, Hoa convinces most people enough for them to speak with him.
He then meets them several times first before starting to educate them.
He works for community-based organisation Cuoc song moi (New life), which helps 200 to 300 drug users.
Explaining the motivation for becoming a peer educator, he said: "Being a drug addict, I brought my parents much misery. I want everyone to avoid the mistakes I made with the help of information. Thanks to the community's support, I have a wife and a son who do not have HIV."
Hoa is very happy with what he is doing.
Ben Tre native Huynh Tien Dat, 26, a gay man who moved to HCM City in 2007, has helped several HIV-infected people through his community organisation Sac mau cuoc song (Colours of life) , which he founded with a friend.
It works with the gay community and focuses on HIV.
Dat said: "I feel very happy when I can introduce one HIV patient to the [District 4] centre for free medicines. I remember my first client. I met him in an online chat forum. After getting the result, he wanted to kill himself. I counselled him."
This inspired the man to help more and more members of the MSM community though he earns little money from his work.
This year his organisation's 10 peer educators took 560 gay people to the centre for tests and it turned out that 25 had HIV. Dat personally counsels 100 people a year.
Dr Le Thu Thuy of the centre's HIV/AIDS Counselling and Community Support, said Hoa does well in his job of a peer educator.
In recent years peer educators have helped the centre prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, introducing most of the 1,300 patients currently receiving ARV treatment, she said.
"Every month one peer educator is asked to bring eight clients."
During a visit to the centre in October, US ambassador Ted Osius praised the role and contributions of community-based organisations in preventing HIV/AIDS, hailing the "tremendous progress" made by Viet Nam in recent years.
"It is very important to involve civil society in the efforts," he said. — VNS