Operation Santa Claus

Aids support group’s mobile HIV screening test offers unexpected hope

Anxious 15 minutes in van is followed by diagnosis and counselling

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 9:30pm

Spending just 15 minutes in Aids Concern’s seven-seater van could change one’s life forever as that is how long it takes to obtain the results of an HIV screening test. And for one HIV-positive patient, the knowledge of his diagnosis has convinced him that his life will get better.

Frank, 30, was confirmed to have the human immunodeficiency virus four months ago after being tested by Aids Concern. He joins a list of 8,053 HIV infections reported in the city from 1984 to June this year, according to the Centre for Health Protection.

“I used to think anyone who was infected with HIV was doomed, that they would die fast and without dignity,” he said, adding his impression came from documentaries and images he saw growing up on the mainland. “But now, here I am, feeling healthier than ever.”

Frank described “a normal morning” when he was on a mobile app and an ad popped up noting a van offering a free HIV screening test was parked only streets away from his Tseung Kwan O office.

He said he wasn’t sure why he decided to get tested, although he said it might have been because “deep down” he knew there was a chance he was HIV-positive, having been sexually active with men since he was 20.

Still, Frank said he did not expect his fears to be validated – that is, until a finger-prick test clearly showed he was HIV-positive.

Number of new HIV cases in Hong Kong third highest since reports began in 1980s

He said an Aids Concern staff member in the van counselled him that he could live a normal life with proper treatment. Yet he exited the vehicle with questions and worries.

I don’t think I would have ever gone to get tested if the van wasn’t parked downstairs
Frank, HIV patient

“I wanted to move out of the flat I share with my boyfriend, and I didn’t want to use spoons and chopsticks when I visited his family,” he said. “I was afraid of deep kissing, and sharing a toilet because I thought my HIV could spread to others around me.”

But Frank credited Aids Concern with helping ease his anxieties by taking him on his first medical appointment and making sure he took his pills when he was supposed to. The efforts helped dispel his misconceptions.

“I am very thankful for their help,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “I was unlucky to be infected with HIV, but my biggest fortune is being HIV-positive and living in Hong Kong where I can receive medication, knowledge and support.”

“I don’t think I would have ever gone to get tested if the van wasn’t parked downstairs from my office,” he added.

HIV/Aids patients still face rejection and discrimination in China’s leading hospitals

Frank, who has dutifully taken his pills nightly since August, said he felt more energetic after overcoming the medication’s initial side effects of giving him dry and itchy skin.

Aids Concern programme director Mandy Cheung Hiu-wah said the mobile service has appealed to people like Frank more than the traditional approach of asking people to visit the organisation’s office. She said the alternative approach was important to fight the disease.

The group has run the mobile HIV screening test service in a rented van for more than a year. It said funds from Operation Santa Claus, the fundraiser organised by the Post and RTHK, would enable staff to offer the service permanently.

Funds would cover most of the project cost, including buying a seven-seater van for permanent use to conduct more mobile screening tests, take patients to doctors, and conduct educational outreach.

“The car will look like any other on the street,” Cheung said. “Our clients will have to call staff to find it.”

She added that, as is the case now, only one staff member would accompany a person during a screening to ensure “privacy and a feeling of safety”.