December 1st is World Aids Day and Citylife is pleased to say that we will be donating part of our fundraising this year from the Citylife Garden Fair event to the Love Foundation in support of their efforts to help raise awareness about AIDS and offer support for those affected.
As of 2016, it was estimated that 450,000 people were living with HIV in Thailand (avert.org), a shocking statistic when considering the fact that Thailand was universally cited as a success story in its efforts to combat the spread of HIV in the ‘90s due to its wide-reaching and creative awareness campaigns. Memories of that success have now been lost, only to be found in archived articles and industry nostalgia. While genXers were virtually universally aware of the necessity of using condoms, today’s youth are for the most part ignorant of the threats of not using contraceptives.
“Many kids start having sex at around 15 today,” said Panyaphon Phiphatkhunnon, Founder and Director of Love Foundation, one of this year’s beneficiaries of the Citylife Garden Fair. “But they only receive sex education when they arrive at university, which by then can be too late. I had one student here recently who was devastated to hear that she had contracted HIV. She kept telling me it was impossible as her boyfriend was a policeman and policemen can’t catch HIV.”
Panyaphon founded and self-funded Love Foundation a year ago. Having gained a master’s degree in software engineering and worked as an IT and social networking expert for many years, he wanted to use his knowledge to help those in need. “I tried to offer my skills to so many foundations, but they weren’t interested,” said Panyaphon, “so I simply decided to start my own foundation.”
“There is so much stigma attached to HIV and AIDS and that is where social media comes in very handy,” he explained. “Look at our Facebook page, we only have 2,000 or so followers. But if you look at the private messages and chats, it is extremely active. Every day we get pictures of genitalia sent to us, asking us if we can tell if they have HIV. We get men, women, boys and girls reaching out to us asking us what should be very basic knowledge questions about sex and HIV and we are here for them all.”
HIV is no longer a gateway to AIDS, which is also no longer a death sentence. Today, people can live long and healthy lives with HIV and within six months to two years of treatment they also will no longer be infectious. However, many people refuse to go to the government hospitals for free checkups due to stigma and this is where Love Foundation steps in.
“We use social media to reach out to people, giving information and support,” explained Panyaphon. “Chiang Mai has the second highest rate of HIV infection in Thailand and although the government offers a lot of support, the problem is many people simply won’t go to hospitals for checkups which are free. We charge a minimum amount because we can’t afford not to, but also because we find that people are more responsible with taking their pills if they are paying for them. However, we offer free checkups to the poor and free consultation to anyone who needs it. So, apart from the antiretroviral drugs for treatment, we also provide pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which you can start taking seven days before sexual activity and continue to take every day to reduce the risk of infection by up to 97-99%. Apart from that there is now also PEP, a post exposure pill to be taken within 72 hours of exposure. So there is really no reason to be afraid of HIV anymore. You can prevent it, you can make sure you can’t catch it after exposure and you can treat it and not spread it.”
By engaging on social media platforms such as the MSM platform Hornet, Facebook or various forums and chatrooms, they have reached out to many people, men and women, who would not have sought help before. “One day a student came to ask for a handful of PrEP pills,” said Panyaphon, “we wouldn’t give it to her unless she talked to us first and we soon learnt that she was about to give it to six other friends who were all going to engage in group sex that night. We explained to her that that was not how it worked and helped prevent what could have been a dangerous activity. I handed her seven condoms and some lube instead.”
Love Foundation has five full time staff and also brings in doctors by appointment. They understand the stress and fear involved in seeking an HIV test and have set up private and comfortable rooms for the 20 minute wait, providing wifi, television, music, magazines, and if needed counselling should the results be positive. They can then refer patients to doctors for further treatment.
With the projected 40,000-50,000 baht Citylife Garden Fair hopes to raise for Love Foundation, Panyaphon will be offering free blood tests and consultation for any students in Chiang Mai, with an aim of reaching at least 200 at-risk students.
To learn more about Love Foundation please visit www.lovefoundation.or.th.