In Myanmar, only sickest HIV patients get drugs
Infected children whose parents have already passed away play barefoot in the stuffy, crowded rooms. Bodies, some nothing more than breathing corpses, are stacked side by side on bamboo slats above dirt floors.
Another room is packed with 20 women stretched out on straw mats crisscrossing the wooden floor. A young mother sobs in one corner as she breast-feeds a 7-day-old baby girl. She did not take HIV drugs until late in her pregnancy, and now must wait up to 18 months to know for sure whether her only child is infected.
“The funding is limited for the enormous number of patients,” says newly elected parliament member Phyu Phyu Thin, who founded the center in 2002 and was jailed by the former government for her HIV work. “Waiting to get the medicine under the limits is too risky for many patients because they can only get it when their health is deteriorating.”
Aung looks the part of a soldier with his shaved head and wiry build. He spent the first decade of his 27 years in the military fighting in domestic ethnic wars, away from his wife and two children.
It’s this past life that devours him each night when sleep refuses to come. He served as a medic then, and regularly came into contact with the blood of wounded soldiers. He also had sex with other women. The question that haunts him most is, which one is to blame? He’ll never know.
He takes sleeping pills every night to be released from these thoughts. But relief does not come, as chills and night sweats drench his body and the constant urge to urinate keeps him running to the toilet.
He’s lost 10 pounds in the past month, dropping from 130 pounds to 120. His cheeks are starting to sink, and his eyes look hollow. His strength is also fading, and he can no longer lead grueling daily runs with the trainees. He uses his TB as an excuse, but he fears his superiors will not be fooled much longer.
“I try to hide it as much as I can, but some people have started rumors about me, so I try not to face them directly,” he says. “I want to be strong like the other people. I’m trying, but now my body cannot follow my mind.”
His wife refuses to be tested until Aung gets on the drugs. She worries if she comes back positive, her guilt-ravaged husband will kill himself.
“She doesn’t want me to be depressed,” he says. “If she is positive, I will be very, very depressed.”
The disease has forced him to rethink who he is. He’s killed people in combat, cheated on his wife and witnessed many horrors in his lifetime. But he wants a chance to make up for his wrongs.
As a Buddhist, he believes his disease is a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life. He vows to be a better man by helping others and giving what little he has to charity.
He says sicker patients deserve treatment first. Still, as he sits waiting for his second blood test, he can’t help wishing his immune system was weak enough to help him reach the magic number.
But when the doctor reads his results, he knows he will leave empty-handed again.