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Korea: Infected, Detected, Rejected
Troubling treatment for foreigners with HIV/AIDS
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-04-10 10:57 (KST)   
If you are a foreigner residing in South Korea who has ever toyed with the idea of determining your HIV/AIDS status, then prepare yourself for an inevitable and disturbing dilemma. That is, will the risks of getting an HIV test outweigh the risks of not getting one?

In Korean hospitals and medical clinics, a foreign patient's anonymity and confidentiality are by no means guaranteed, especially when it comes to HIV testing. In fact, hospitals and clinics will report the names of foreigners found to be infected with HIV or AIDS to immigration, resulting in sure and swift deportation.

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In 1987, Korea adopted the AIDS Prevention Act which gives a legal basis for various activities of AIDS prevention and ensures the confidentiality of Koreans with HIV/AIDS. However, Korea still lacks provisions that protect foreigners with HIV/AIDS from the leaking of private health information, invasive medical requirements for employment, and forcible eviction.

Under Article 11 of the Immigration Control Act, the Ministry of Justice has the authority to prohibit entry into Korea of people carrying "epidemic diseases," although the types and nature of diseases are not enumerated. As of 2007, Korean immigration has deported over 521 foreigners who were discovered to be infected with HIV or AIDS, regardless of their legal status.

According to the European AIDS Treatment group, a total of 74 countries have some form of HIV-specific travel restrictions. South Korea is one of nine countries in the world, including the United States and China, that completely bans HIV-positive visitors, even for short-term tourist stays.

HIV-related travel restrictions raise concerns regarding the fundamental human rights of non-discrimination and the freedom of movement. Such restrictions usually take the form of a law that requires travelers to declare their HIV/AIDS status prior to or upon arrival in receiving countries. Some countries require foreigners to submit the results of an official HIV test in order to acquire specific visas, which is what foreign teachers must do now if they plan to work in Korea on an E-2 visa.

Recently, UNAIDS established an international task force to bring heightened attention to HIV-related travel restrictions, which the organization hopes to eliminate. According to UNAIDS, such travel restrictions have no public health justification, as HIV cannot be transmitted by the mere presence of infected individuals. Furthermore, travel restrictions can run counter to the safety interests of a country concerned with the spread of contagious, threatening diseases.

Restrictive medical measures can deter foreigners from utilizing prevention and care services, thus contributing to increased individual uncertainty of private health status. Consequently, this prevents foreigners from undertaking preventative counter measures and from seeking treatment if they are in fact infected.

A case in point concerns a foreigner who acquired HIV while living in Korea. (For the sake of anonymity, we will call him "Vincent"). In 2005, Vincent tested at an anonymous clinic in Seoul. He had to wait three weeks for his results, and in the meantime he went to a regular clinic for a general medical checkup and tests.

"I specifically requested the doctor not to test me for HIV, so I assumed he did not. After one more week, I got the original [anonymous] test results back and they came out positive."

Because Vincent had not yet received his clinical testing results, he was afraid to return in case the doctor had decided to test for HIV. He went to the clinic anyway, where Vincent learned that the doctor had indeed tested for HIV. According to the doctor, the test results were negative.

"I didn't trust him," said Vincent. "So I went to Bangkok to get tested again, where I found out that my counts were really low -- a viral load of 421, which might have been less than what the Korean tests were capable of detecting, explaining the negative outcome. International standards are set at 400 while in Korea I have heard it is only detectable with a viral load over 500."

"I live every day in fear that I will get caught. Not for being positive but for working illegally. I am healthy, not on medication, active and an outgoing guy in the Korean community. I organize volunteer activities for groups of Koreans and foreigners. I speak nearly fluent Korean. I got HIV here, and nowhere else."

Vincent intended to put his linguistic and professional talents to use by working for a Korean company stationed overseas. However, he wonders whether a Korean company abroad would also deny him employment on the basis of his HIV status, given the way those with HIV/AIDS are currently treated in Korea.

Vincent's commentary encouraged me to pay a visit to the Korea HIV/AIDS Prevention & Support Center (KHAP), the nation's only facility that provides anonymous and free counseling and testing services to foreigners regardless of their visa status. Currently, KHAP has two regional offices: one located in Seoul near Sungshin Women's University and the other in Ansan. The latter is specialized to meet the needs of non-English-speaking foreigners.

The entire process was so simple. First, I signed up online for the rapid testing service and received an email confirmation that identified me only by number. Upon arrival, I had to present this number to the front desk. I was never asked for my name during the visit, and despite being referred to as "7," I was treated in a humane, respectful manner.

Because I arrived a bit early, the staff asked me to wait in their internet lounge, inside which I found pamphlets with information on HIV/AIDS and KHAP, as well as a small basket with handmade "Little Travelers" for sale from South Africa. After a few minutes Jo Eun Jeong, the KHAP counseling manager, guided me to another room where I had to fill out a brief questionnaire. I provided answers to a few health-related questions, but still my anonymity had not been compromised.

Following the questionnaire, I took the HIV test, which consisted of a painless prick of my finger and a few drops of blood. Within seconds, the doctor informed me of my O+ blood type and then left to bring my blood sample to the lab for further analysis.

While I waited for the rapid results, I spoke with Eun Jeong about the HIV/AIDS situation in Korea. Referencing UNAIDS data, Eun Jeong told me that over 980 people in Korea have died from AIDS since 1985. Additionally, approximately 4,343 people have been living with HIV since December 2007. By gender, 91.3 percent of HIV-patients are male and 8.7 percent are female, and the main route of infection in over 90 percent of cases is sexual contact.

With respect to foreigners with HIV/AIDS, 88 foreigners living in Korea were found to have been infected with HIV in 2007. Since January of 2008, the KHAP test center has found five people who have tested positive for HIV.

"It is so sad when we have to tell them," Eun Jeong said. "But we keep everything confidential. There is no way for the government or immigration to know who is tested here."

I believed her wholeheartedly and asked what she thought about the future of HIV/AIDS in Korea. Eun Jeong was hopeful that one day things would be different and that Koreans would begin to speak out openly and publicly on an issue that, to this day, remains on Korea's collective list of taboo topics.

"My parents are proud of what I do," Eun Jeong admitted with a smile. "But still they can't even tell people where I work. They tell others that I work in 'healthcare,' but they don't say that I work in an HIV/AIDS prevention center."

We both found that to be highly problematic. The fact there is a very limited space in Korea for public dialogue concerning HIV/AIDS only makes the viruses more difficult to combat. Without dialogue and a widespread educational approach to the issue, people will continue to make unfounded assumptions, hospitals and medical facilities will continue to compromise foreigners' willingness to seek professional medical assistance, and foreigners with HIV/AIDS will continue to be denied access to treatment in Korean hospitals. Many foreigners will simply live with question marks looming over their heads that prevent them from knowing for certain whether or not they are infected.

After about 20 minutes, my rapid results were ready. Thankfully, the news was good, and I left KHAP wearing a smile of satisfaction. I was thoroughly impressed by the highly streamlined process I had just undergone, but I think I was even more excited to have interacted with the KHAP personnel, professionals who have taken a strong and progressive stance on an issue mired by years of discriminatory sentiments and stigma.

People like Eun Jeong are inspiring. Koreans and foreigners alike should acknowledge and praise such people's efforts to protect the inherent rights and health of all those living in Korea. After all, it seems silly to shy away from an issue that only grows more potent with ignorance and neglect.

To learn more about HIV/AIDS or to schedule a test with KHAP, visit: http://www.khap.org
Michael Solis is a visiting researcher at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea under the auspices of the Luce Scholars Program. He is a graduate of Princeton University.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea was established in 2001 to promote human rights education and defend those who have experienced discrimination, or have had a human right violated, and to safeguard the provisions set for in international human rights conventions and treaties, to which the Republic of Korea is a signatory. The Commission offers counseling, full investigation and protection for residents in Korea, and develops educational initiatives for organizations and educators to increase awareness about human rights and the value of each individual in society.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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