amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Voices: Taking a Stand in Myanmar


July 2006—Addy Chen is a consultant with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance Myanmar, working with men who have sex with men (MSM). In addition to volunteering among people living with HIV/AIDS, he also serves as the organization’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS (APN+) and is a member of TREAT Asia’s Asian Community for AIDS Treatment and Advocacy (ACATA).

Addy Chen
Addy Chen.

When I was in my early 20s I worked as a tour guide, but after four or five years I thought it was time to change my career and so I applied to be a flight attendant for Myanmar’s local airline. I got the job and I began training to become cabin crew. But all of us who had been selected had to take a mandatory HIV test, which was performed without any pre-test counseling. After I took it, the airline managers called me in and told me that they had checked my test results twice and they showed that I was HIV positive.

So they kicked me out with the excuse that I would not be able to perform my job because it was in customer service. I was really upset. My test result was not kept confidential so everyone in the office learned about my status. At that time I did not know anything about HIV/AIDS. I didn’t know anything about my rights, either, so I didn’t know how to fight for my rights.

When I found out I was positive, I was really afraid, but I am an MSM and some of my friends knew a lot about HIV. Some were really supportive of me and helped me find a way to face the disease. At first I didn’t tell my family, but they found out when I really got sick. Eventually they accepted it and they have been supportive emotionally. So I’m kind of lucky.

Since I was diagnosed I have been very ill at times with various opportunistic infections. When I started taking antiretrovirals [ARVs] I didn’t get a CD4-count test and I didn’t receive any treatment education about drug side effects or how the drugs work, but my symptoms were very bad so I had to start ARV treatment. After a while, my health got better and I thought taking the drugs wasn’t so important any more. So I stopped taking them as regularly as I was supposed to. If I had known as much about the medications as I do now, I would have had really good adherence!

After I was diagnosed with HIV, I went back to my first job as a tour guide, and when I had been there for a while I became friends with a guy from UNOPS [the United Nations Office of Project Services]. He saw that I spoke openly about my status and that I was quite willing to work with HIV-positive people, so he asked that I come to his office and volunteer there. Then my friend said that UNOPS, along with other aid groups such as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, CARE Myanmar, and the UN Development Program, wanted to establish a network in Myanmar to support people living with HIV/AIDS [PLWA], and I became involved with this group.

The Myanmar country representative for the International HIV Alliance also approached me and I started working with them as an MSM prevention consultant. Now we have the network for PLWA established and we’re starting to build our capacity to understand how anti-HIV drugs work, what is happening in the region, and how we can get access to treatment.

The Global Fund pullout is the worst, worst thing for PLWAs in Myanmar. The current situation here is that there are 45,000 needing ARVs right now and only 2,000 have access to them. One thousand of those buy their medications from the private sector and the other half get them free—800 from nongovernmental organizations and about 200 from the government. When the Global Fund came into Myanmar, they had the goal of treating at least 4,500 people by 2009. The program was cut before the medications were ever delivered, so a lot of people are losing their chance to get drugs—it’s really bad. Still, humanitarian funding has been promised from Europe. It has not come in yet, but it will hopefully replace part of the Global Fund support.