Voices: Positive Living
October 2005—Thomas Zhang is a program officer in the China office of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. He is also project director of AIDS Care China, a community support group for people with HIV/AIDS. AIDS Care originated in Guangdong province and has expanded to Guangxi, Hube, and Yunnan provinces. In addition, Thomas is a member of TREAT Asia’s Asian Community for AIDS Treatment and Advocacy (ACATA).
Up until 2000 I worked at an international trading company as a Southeast Asia country manager, but I began to feel sick by the end of 1999. I was under a doctor’s care for nine months but my condition was getting worse instead of better. Finally I felt that I couldn’t survive long and decided to return to China in October 2000 to spend the rest of my time with my family.
Soon after I returned to China I was diagnosed as HIV positive. In fact, I was told that I was already in the late stages of AIDS. I dared not reveal my status to people around me, even my family members. But since the doctor who prescribed the HIV test for me is a friend of mine, the news about my HIV status spread rapidly among my friends. Since the day I was diagnosed my cell phone never rang again because my friends were so afraid of getting in touch with me. Years later when I happened to meet one of my classmates at the airport, he was shocked because he had been told that I was going to die in the year 2000.
I didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS then—just that it’s a horrible and deadly disease. My condition was getting worse day by day and I knew I wouldn’t be alive for long. My parents didn’t understand what was wrong or why I did not go for treatment and they constantly asked me why, so finally I had to tell them the truth. When they heard that I had HIV/AIDS, they also felt hopeless and helpless—but they didn’t reject me. They are still taking care of me very well.
On 1 December 2000, my family watched a TV program about HIV/AIDS treatment and it ignited hope in all of us. The next month they used all their savings to help me start antiretroviral treatment. When I was sent to the hospital my condition was very bad. I had many opportunistic infections and my CD4 count was only 19. But with support from my family and thanks to the effectiveness of the drugs, I started to recover step by step.
My own life showed me that access to treatment and information is crucial for HIV-positive people—it’s a matter of life and death. So when I regained my strength in around six months, I started to help people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) by providing them with treatment information and a message about positive living.
I established an NGO called AIDS Care China, which has built an effective partnership with medical professionals in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hubei provinces to provide the PLWHA community with better and more comprehensive support for HIV/AIDS treatment. We’ve been able to help people with AIDS rebuild confidence that they can survive HIV and regain their dignity as members of society.
Looking back on my experience of living with HIV/AIDS, I realize that there have been dramatic changes on the Chinese government’s side, especially during the past two years. Government leaders have made a strong political commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS and providing care and support to PLWHA. But stigma and discrimination have accompanied the disease around the world and they also exist in China. Fighting them has become one of the main challenges in responding to HIV/AIDS.