Chinese Peer educators give hope to HIV/AIDS patients
Xu Dong looked up from his desk and could see the patient standing before him was anxious. The patient had been newly diagnosed with HIV.
Xu, in a black leather jacket and a dark blue hat, told the patient he was a volunteer HIV/AIDS counselor. He also told the patient something more important - Xu himself is HIV positive.
The 54-year-old man works as an HIV/AIDS peer educator at the Home of the Red Ribbon, a counseling service under the direction of Beijing Ditan Hospital, formerly the First Infectious Disease Hospital of Beijing.
Xu Dong is in fact his pseudonym, meaning "sun rising in the east," He uses the name to protect his identity, because he said he would be subject to social pressure if his HIV status were known. Although he lives with his wife and child, his child doesn't know of his illness.
The walls of the 30-square-meter office where Xu and the other volunteers work are adorned with red ribbons and a large logo proclaiming the theme of 2011 World AIDS Day: "Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections, Zero Discrimination and Zero AIDS Related Deaths."
Xu is one of the 13 peer educators who volunteer at Red Ribbon. Each day from Monday to Friday, two volunteers are on duty. They offer counseling to HIV/AIDS patients and answer a hotline for people who have questions about the disease. "We've received professional training from the hospital and we can also draw on our own battle against HIV/AIDS to encourage others living with it," Xu said.
Prospective peer educators learn about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as receive training in psychological counseling and communication.
According to Xu, he and other HIV/AIDS peer educators are better able to gain patients' trust and help them deal with their problems, since they have faced the same problems themselves. Xu said helping patients develop a positive attitude is crucial for treatment. "It helps us face the disease head-on and get more actively engaged in the medical treatment," Xu said. "So we have more confidence to fight the side-effects of the antiretroviral drugs and the social pressures we still face."
Xu learned he had HIV in 2000. His wife later tested negative. He said he felt "as if my sky had collapsed" when he received his diagnosis. ' Besides experiencing anxiety and depression, he suffered from a constant low fever, loss of appetite and lack of sleep.
"Back then, peer education hadn't been formally introduced to China. I hadn't even heard of the term," Xu said. "We only had doctors and nurses doing counseling for us."
After six months of treatment at Beijing Ditan Hospital, Xu's physical condition began to improve and he became more optimistic. With the help of peer counselors, some HIV/AIDS patients are now able to shake off their depression within a few weeks and resume a relatively ordinary life.
"Most of the newly-diagnosed HIV-positive people were in a state of mental crisis after receiving their HIV diagnosis," said Lun Wenhui, director of the Department of Dermatology and STD/AIDS clinic, Beijing Ditan Hospital. "They were in dire need of psychosocial support to navigate through the enormous emotional challenges. The help from a peer educator at this critical moment is more than supportive," he said.
"Many of the volunteers have fared well as a result of HIV/AIDS treatment. By sharing their own stories, they give hope to many other HIV/AIDS patients," said Qu Wenyan, program director for the WHO Collaborative Center for Comprehensive Management of HIV Treatment and Care and the Beijing AIDS Clinical Research Center.
But Xu Dong admited peer educators can only give mental support. Taking care of the HIV/AIDS patients needs the help from all sides of society. "Volunteers are not God, and they can't help the patients financially or medically. We peer educators can only give them mental support to help them face their illness," he said.
Official data from September show China has about 429,000 registered HIV/AIDS patients, an increase of nearly 60,000 over the past 11 months. This number is lower than a 2009 estimate of 740,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers, published in a joint report that year by the Chinese Ministry of Health, UNAIDS and WHO.
Dr. Lun Wenhui said, "The Chinese government takes the HIV/AIDS prevention and control very serious. Over the past decade, we have made a lot of progress in HIV/AIDS prevention and control, but still have much to do in the future."