UNAIDS Country Director Eamonn Murphy Speech at World AIDS Day Camp 2007

wad_065Saturday 24 November 2007
Thai Nguyen, Viet Nam

Madame Ha Thi Khiet, chair of the Party Commission for Popular Mobilsation; Madame Nguyen Thanh Hoa, president of the Viet Nam Women’s Union; Mr. Nguyen Vun Vuong, Party Chair and People’s Council Chairman; Dr. Trong, director general of the VAAC, representatives of the Ministry of Health, the Women’s Union, PLHIV, students, friends and community leaders, good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to speak at this extraordinary event.

In the few months that I have been in Viet Nam, I have often heard the young people singing, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Looking around me tonight, at these young people electrified by the mission to stop HIV, I know that their country is proud of them.  There is a wonderful momentum of activism here; I wish that it will sweep across the country and inspire others in the way it has inspired me today.

We are gathered in honour of World AIDS Day.  Leadership is the theme for this year’s commemoration.  As you know, leaders are not only the fine people sitting in government offices in Ha Noi; any one of you can be, and is a leader.  A leader is someone who shows personal commitment to stopping HIV.  A leader is someone who challenges prejudice, takes concrete action, sets an example and thinks creatively.  A leader is a courageous individual – a hero. I believe that every Vietnamese person is a hero.

I planned to come here and speak the same words that I have all over Viet Nam; I planned to urge you to find the leader within you and act.  But now that I am here, what can I say? Today’s event is a brilliant example of Vietnamese people taking the lead – students, women, officials from all levels of the government and party – I applaud you.

I want to recognise all the important efforts that the Vietnamese government has made in response to HIV.  They have fought tirelessly for their people. They have passed the Party Directive No. 54, the Law on HIV/AIDS, the law on Domestic Violence and the National Strategy on HIV.

I also want to recognise the thousands and thousands of healthcare workers who have worked at the frontlines of this disease, the thousands and thousands of parents who have educated, cared for, and sacrificed for their children, the wonderful Women’s Unions who have worked so hard and so tirelessly, and all the community and self-help groups who have exemplified the spirit of leadership.  I am humbled before your sincerity and your dedication.

It is estimated that approximately one in 60 households has a PLHIV. More than 100 Vietnamese people get infected by HIV every day, and 80% of infections are among 20-39 year-olds.  You young people: this is your age group. You should be starting your lives, pushing forward development and supporting your families.  You should be struggling for success – not struggling to access the medicines that are still much too scarce outside of the capital city, or to access the prevention services that are still only available to one person in ten globally.

The people of Viet Nam have battled so long and so hard against every challenge, through wars and hunger and loss, and now we are standing on the brink of a momentous era in your long history. Independent, with a strong and growing economy, Viet Nam has become a member of the World Trade Organisation and will soon achieve the status of middle income country.  It has even become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.  We must not allow HIV to destroy all that you have built your nation into!  You must work together; remember that one tree does not make a forest.  Now is the time to focus on poverty reduction, to improve health and living standards for all, and to band together as one community to forbid stigma and discrimination to weaken you.

There is a story I have heard here in Viet Nam: A man showed his sons how fragile a single chopstick is; he broke it easily with his hands.  Then he showed his sons how a handful of these fragile chopsticks, joined together, cannot be broken. As individuals, we are as weak as a single chopstick; as a community we are strong.

Look what communal action has already achieved: in 2001 only 60 people in Viet Nam had access to life-saving anti-retroviral treatment.  Now, six years later, there are more than 14,000. It has more than doubled in the last year alone, a significant success that we have to increase every year.

You young people are the hope and future of Viet Nam. With your energy and passion and with the labor and wisdom of family, community and government leaders we can slow this epidemic.  We can stop it. As Ho Chi Minh himself once said, “Remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability.” Do not see HIV as an insurmountable problem; this is a challenge.  It challenges us as a community, and it is as a community that we must fight it. Now is the time for you, the people of Viet Nam, to show the world, once again, how strong you really are.

All those affected by HIV are in great need of support, friendship, encouragement, understanding and love.  Take the lead to fight stigma and discrimination – for these are the hidden drivers of the epidemic.  Take the time to talk to a PLHIV, put your arm around him/her and listen to them.  Insist that PLHIV are central to all efforts to fight HIV.

When one person thinks, ‘I will not go to that food shop because a PLHIV works there,’ or one doctor says, ‘I cannot treat you because you have HIV,’ or one mother says, ‘You must not play with that child,’ one spouse says, ‘I cannot stay married to you,’ one police officer thinks, ‘This person deserves what has happened to them’ – we are all hurt.  This is how HIV spreads.

Now is the time to stand up and refuse to allow HIV to spread.  Take the lead!  Anyone can contribute.  Start small, do something simple: wear a red ribbon and urge others to do the same; get tested; take your partner to get tested; start a campaign; create propaganda; organize a debate or quiz; lobby your local clinics and shops to make sure condoms and clean needles are available to those who need them; educate those around you about HIV transmission.  If you are a parent, talk to your children.  If you are a teacher, talk to your students.  Nothing is difficult if you are patient and your determination is strong.  If you wanted to, you could move a whole mountain; you could fill the entire ocean.

I leave you with one more quote, from a great man who lived long before Ho Chi Minh, but whose impact on Viet Nam is profound.  The Buddha once said, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Love never decreases by being shared.”  A candle is very small and alone it does not give off much light.  But if every one of you leaves this event today with compassion burning inside you, your light will spread and our communities, our nation, will be ablaze.

Thank you for your attention and your engagement.  Safe travels back to your homes and let us enjoy the rest of this evening together.


Green One UN House, 304 Kim Ma, Ba Dinh, Ha Noi, Viet Nam