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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Taiwan case shows Aids disharmony
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

In a three-storey house in a quiet neighbourhood in southern Taipei, toddlers play with toys while the adults chat, rest or watch TV.

Children at Harmony Home
Children are among those sheltered at Harmony Home

They have lived in the house for more than a year, but from the start the local community has made it clear that their presence is unwelcome.

The reason? Those living in the home either have Aids or are HIV positive.

In early October, a district court ruled that the residents should move.

The court said the presence of their shelter, Harmony Home, could pose a public health concern, affect environmental sanitation and threaten the psychological health of nearby residents.

Nicole Yang, who set up the centre, has called the ruling outrageous and discriminatory.

I urge local residents to let us stay. Don't throw us out. Have tolerance
Harmony Home resident

"We will go to a higher court. I think we have the human rights to stay," she said. "I'm upset about the people. They don't understand. They don't want to receive the people who are suffering, are poor, are sick.

"Last year, when we moved into the community, the people are scared. They want to burn our house, kick us out. I think the stigma was like it was 20 years ago."

Twenty-two people live in the centre, including a baby less than two months old. Some of the young children have either been abandoned or their mothers are in jail for drugs offences.

"Winter" is one of the older residents. The 60-year-old cannot stop crying when I talked to her. "I had no where else to go. I wanted to commit suicide," she said.

"I urge local residents to let us stay. Don't throw us out. Have tolerance."

"Xiao Hong", 22, has been HIV positive for the past three years and says Harmony Home has become a place of refuge.

"Its a family. We don't do any harm to the community. I wish we could just stay here, peacefully."

Legal drama

The prevalence of Aids and HIV has traditionally been very low in Taiwan, accounting for less than 1% of the population.

But in the past three years, the number of new cases has roughly doubled each year - mainly spreading through contaminated needle-sharing among intravenous drug users.

Harmony Home in Taipei (picture courtesy of Harmony Homes)
The home has been making headlines in Taiwan

Health experts have warned that Taiwan is on the brink of an HIV/Aids outbreak.

By the end of September 2006, officials reported Taiwan had 12,474 cases of people who were HIV positive and 2,817 cases of Aids.

But Aids groups estimate that a more realistic figure could be double the reported government numbers.

Trial "harm reduction" programmes - including providing sterile needles and syringes and offering methadone replacement therapy for intravenous drug users - have been underway in four areas of Taiwan to try to stem the trend.

But while the statistics continue to rise, attitudes towards people with Aids or HIV have largely remained unchanged. This is partly because overall numbers are still low and those affected are generally considered to be on the fringes of society.

"In Western countries, there is no need for halfway homes or shelters for people with HIV or Aids. They can live normally and only need to access the healthcare system when they are sick," said Dr Wong Wing Wai at Taipei City hospital.

"When they are well, they can go back home to their community, even to their work," he said. "But here, it's because even the families refuse to take their family members home... that we may need a halfway home. But it is not a good way."

There has been widespread media coverage of the legal drama facing Harmony Home.

Some other groups running shelters and helping people with HIV/Aids fear there could be a public backlash against the work they do.

But others regard the news coverage as a positive thing, helping break down some stereotypes and provide clearer information about the HIV virus and how it can be transmitted.

"It's become a hot issue and, to me, this is a good chance to promote the anti-Aids control campaign," said Dr Twu Shiing-Jer, a former Minister of Health and now chairman of the Taiwan Aids foundation.

"It's a chance to explain clearly to people about Aids and how to control its spread."

'Nimby effect'

But despite the public health messages and the calls for tolerance, residents appear unmoved.

As well as voicing concerns over health issues, many worry the centre is adversely affecting property prices in the area.

"Aids is not curable and people are afraid of being infected," Chung Xun Liu, head of the local administrative district, said.

Such comments irritate those like Yen Muh-yong, director of the division for disease control and prevention at Taipei City government.

"The government did a lot of effort about education, telling the public Aids is not that contagious, it's quite safe, unless you have body fluid exposure. And in this community, we've talked to them, we showed them evidence. They all seem to accept this," he said.

"However, what we are seeing is simply the Nimby effect, not-in-my-backyard effect. Everybody knows that."

Officials say if there is one thing this case underlines, it is the need for more public education - and not simply health messages about how people can protect themselves from the HIV virus that can lead to Aids.

"We need more education so that people can respect each other," said Dr Twu, of the Taiwan Aids Foundation.

"If there's no tolerance for people with HIV/Aids, people will be reluctant to come forward for testing. "That could mean the disease will be transmitted more frequently and the dangers will only increase."

Country profile: Taiwan
11 Aug 06 |  Country profiles

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