Why the HIV victims must be compensated

WOUNDING from a fall or bump is a part of life for most children, but it is something haemophiliacs cannot afford.

Most of us would not be too concerned about minor wounds, knowing they would be healed by our biological mechanism. With deficient blood clotting factors, however, the lives of haemophiliacs are threatened by such injuries.

The special attention needed to prevent haemophiliacs from bleeding has barred them from enjoying activities of their peers. And the extra care adds a constant physical and psychological burden to the parents of these children.

Contracting an incurable disease was not only a double-blow for the infected haemophiliacs, but also a life-long nightmare for their families. To make things worse, the over-zealous and somewhat misleading labelling of AIDS in our society has made it a triple penalty for haemophiliacs who have contracted the HIV virus through receiving contaminated blood products.

Through no fault of their own, they are born with an incurable disease; have contracted a deadly disease; and have become outcasts - all without understanding why.

The 61 HIV-infected haemophiliacs in Hongkong are believed to have contracted the virus through receiving transfusions of blood or blood products before screening techniques were introduced in the territory in 1985. Of them, 26 were children when they tested positive. Fifteen are under 18.

Allegations that the Government did not act fast enough to remove the contaminated blood concentrate from the market - claiming there was a possible delay of at least four months - is still in dispute.

But rather than pointing an accusing finger, we should be directing our energy to improving the lives of the haemophiliacs who have been neglected by our community.

Compensation for them is a must.

The HIV virus is transmitted through sexual contact, needles shared among drug users, contaminated blood or blood products, and infected women during pregnancy. Obviously, HIV-infected haemophiliacs, particularly the children, would have only contractedthe disease through blood transfusions.

Equally, it is hard to prove the Government's delay in introducing heat-treated blood products in 1985 was responsible for the crisis.

But both the haemophiliacs and the Government would be in a no-win situation should the matter be brought to the court. The further exposure of the HIV carriers' identities, even to a few persons in a hearing held in private, would likely lead to discrimination by our community that lacks knowledge about AIDS.

The Government's image would suffer, even if it did win a court battle involving an already suffering family.

''No-fault compensation'' appears to be the answer to both problems. While claiming no liability against the Government, the families can have compassionate financial assistance.

In other advanced countries, no-fault compensation is not uncommon in the medical field, even in cases unrelated to AIDS. Unlike some other professions, medical practitioners face a myriad of factors in the quest for curing patients.

In some cases - despite expertise and care - this goal may not be achieved. Instead, a patient's condition may be complicated because of an unexpected biological response or another factor out of the doctor's control.

Still, the injured need to be compensated.

But what good is money for a person, if he has to live in isolation, and die in undignified isolation? How can money, no matter how large the amount, compensate for life-long discrimination in employment, education and recreation? Should ours be a caring society? We owe them concern, support services and help in coping with psychological problems and in leading a productive and dignified life.

It is encouraging that the Department of Health has set up an ad hoc group to study the HIV infection of haemophiliacs through blood products. Apart from probing whether delays existed in screening contaminated blood products and ways of preventing re-occurrence, the group should make suggestions on strengthening and co-ordinating treatment, psychological counselling and support services for the affected families.

But the suffering by HIV carriers will not be lessened as long as our community maintains a discriminatory and an apathetic attitude towards AIDS sufferers.

What's wrong with our AIDS education programmes and publicity campaigns, which have been in place for many years? I will be the first to admit AIDS has generated a lot of publicity; a lot of warnings on how to prevent contracting the disease and the dangers of AIDS.

It has no doubt been engraved in the minds of Hongkong residents that promiscuity, drug use and homosexuality increase the threat of being infected. Yet, why do ordinary people still believe that it is dangerous to eat at the same table as an HIV carrier? Why are they concerned when their dentist is found to be infected? Why do they protest when their children attend the same school as someone with the HIV virus? The crux is: we work on publicity but not education, and we fail to direct our publicity in the right direction.

So, in the end, the message is simply: ''AIDS is a deadly disease. Don't go near.'' It is ironic that it is not taboo to have hepatitis B, a disease that is prevalent in Hongkong and transmitted in the same way as AIDS and can be as deadly.

The lack of AIDS education for students, professionals and various social sectors also results in discriminatory and hysteric acts against HIV carriers. Recently, we have seen examples of carriers being rejected by schools, gymnasiums, private hospitals and even funeral parlours.

While bearing the brunt, the Government's medical front has been working hard to deal with treatment and counselling for HIV carriers and the AIDS sufferers. Yet, despite being under the flagship of the Government Advisory Council on AIDS for three years, other fronts such as the departments of labour, welfare and education still appear to be falling short in performing their parts in AIDS education.

Five years ago, the Education Department issued teaching kits on AIDS and guidelines to teachers for handling blood-borne diseases. But these materials have been lying idle, and misconceptions towards AIDS still linger among teachers and students.

Social workers have given talks on AIDS prevention and counselling, but how many are coming forward to be involved in helping the sufferers? The setting up of the independent AIDS Foundation in June 1991 was aimed at improving the co-ordination of efforts among Government bodies, non-government organisations and society at large in promoting AIDS education. But the foundation can only use the meagre interest generated from its $30 million seed money. But we have yet to see how far and how fast this goal can be achieved.

We are competing with time and an estimated 6,000 HIV carriers now in our society. We have to ensure the spread of the disease is contained. We have to ensure AIDS sufferers are properly treated. We have to promote research so that this deadly disease can one day be eradicated. But above all, it is also our duty to wipe out the image of these unfortunate HIV carriers as ''unfavourables''.

Let us hope we will not see Hongkong returning to the dark age when people with leprosy were banished to an isolated island. And let us hope that in the near future, the population of carriers who contracted the HIV virus through no fault of their own will be able to receive their ''no-fault compensation''.

Dr Leong Che-hung is a representative of the medical profession in the Legislative Council.