UNRC (ad interim) Speech at launch of Viet Nam’s National AIDS Action Month, 8/11/09

Vice President Madame Nguyen Thi Doan, Health Minister Nguyen Quoc Trieu, Bac Ninh Province People’s Committee Chairman, Youth Union Central Committee Secretary, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends. Thank you for inviting me to address you this morning on behalf of the United Nations Country Team in Viet Nam.

Following that tradition of ‘chew betel, tell a story,’ I would like to open with an anecdote from my own life. I hope you will indulge me.

Some weeks ago I was having coffee with a dear friend. This friend’s wife and only son passed away just recently from AIDS, and since then his spirits have been very low. When I asked him what it is that’s worrying him most, he gave an answer I never expected.

I was born into this world the same as any other being, he said. And I have done my best, the same as any other. But after I go, no one will remember me.

I said that’s not possible.

He said, look around. We are already forgotten. The schools forget our children, the doctors forget our pain, our neighbours forget we were once friends. If I am forgotten now, while I am healthy and active and standing on my two feet, what will happen when it’s time to burn incense at my altar? 

I struggle a lot to convince myself he is wrong.

Viet Nam has a legal framework that protects the rights of people living with and affected by HIV. Viet Nam has HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services – like Methadone treatment, ARV medicines, vocational support, and interventions to prevent mother-to-child transmission – that are expanding every day. Viet Nam has a National Plan of Action on Children and HIV. Viet Nam has a National Network of People Living with HIV. Viet Nam has growing civil society involvement in the response. In Viet Nam, people living with HIV are not forgotten!

Well, perhaps it would be more correct to say that many of them are not forgotten. 

Two years ago, less than 30% of those in need could access ARV medicines. Today, still more than 50% go without. Interventions to prevent pregnant women from passing HIV to their children only reach one out of every five women in need, despite interventions having increased 50% in two years. A quarter of a million families around the country are watching their savings, their energy and their hopes diminish under the relentless pressure of the virus. And often they are watching alone; stigma and discrimination have isolated them from society. How can this be?

The themes of this year’s National AIDS Action Month are Universal Access and human rights. Three years ago, Viet Nam committed itself to Universal Access by setting targets to increase access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services for people in need. Also, according to Article 61 of the Constitution, every Vietnamese citizen, everywhere, at every time and in every circumstance, has an equal right to access healthcare and medical services. Moreover, Viet Nam has a rigorous policy and legal framework, most notably the Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control and its implementing decrees, that guarantees the human rights of people living with, affected by and at risk for HIV. 

The laws are there. But their implementation still has a long way to go. To make the laws meaningful, and to achieve Universal Access: 

1.    We need to focus first on prevention. This includes doing more to counter pervasive stigma and discrimination, not just against people living with HIV but also against key populations at higher risk. Drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men face formidable challenges to accessing HIV prevention and treatment services. 
2.    Second, we need greater multi-sectoral coordination, from the commune and district to the provincial and national levels.
3.    And finally, we need to make a personal commitment, every one of us, to keep the promise to stop HIV.

None of this difficult. None of this is impossible. We only have to remember. As Ho Chi Minh once said, ‘Love others as you love yourself.’ Please take the opportunity this month to wear a red ribbon, participate in AIDS Action Month events and tell others about HIV. If you do, you can change lives. You can change your own life. Please don’t forget.

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