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August 1, 2021, 4:57 pm

HIV kids in Vietnam

(13:44:02 PM 25/06/2014)
( - These kids, I suspect, have never heard of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But they should, because they have so much in common.


Magic Johnson earned his nickname on the basketball court as he became one of America’s greatest athletes – a charismatic champion who shifted into a successful business career after his playing days abruptly ended.


The 76 young residents of the HIV orphanage we visited on Vietnam’s Reunification Day (April 30) should learn that Magic Johnson, like them, carries the virus that causes AIDS.  Twenty-three years ago, the diagnosis ended Magic’s playing days. Like other fans, I feared his health would plunge into a tragic spiral.  Instead, his life with HIV has proved inspiring. Young people with HIV everywhere should learn that they could still lead a rewarding life free of ostracism – if society frees itself from its fear and allows them to do so.


The orphanage is about an hour’s drive outside the capital in Ba Vi, near a drug rehab center. It was not as sad a place as we had feared, but a fairly attractive compound that includes a cluster of two-story structures that serve as the living quarters for children from the age of 6 months to 18 years.


Dozens of kids greeted our party under the roof of a spacious open-air dining hall. My Vietnamese American wife, who organized this modest charity excursion, was pleasantly surprised to spot a sign near a playground noting that the play structures had been erected by volunteers with Road Monkey Adventures, a company founded by one of her friends to combine eco-tourism and philanthropy.


We raised cash through donations and by selling flavored shaved ice on warm, sunny days to families participating in a school walkathon along Tay Ho. With my wife’s colleagues and a few expat families pitching in, our group delivered more than $1,000 worth of rice, cooking oil, milk, school books and new clothes – items the orphanage’s staff said would be very useful.  We also brought dozens of used toys and clothes in good condition, plus popcorn donated by a movie theater.


The children and staff expressed gratitude. Some boys, we were told, stayed up late because the excitement of having visitors, which apparently does not happen often. As we toured the grounds and dorms and talked to the staff, it became clear that there was a greater need here than physical goods.


The children, as they grow up, come to understand their status as outcasts. How can people donate a sense of dignity? How can you contribute freedom from society’s fears and bigotry?


Today, Vietnam’s children with HIV live a largely segregated life. Those who attend public school receive special attention that limits their interaction with the mainstream student body.  Anti-viral drugs may protect them from the devastating illnesses associated with HIV, but it cannot liberate them from the stigma.


That’s a shame. More than two decades ago, I covered the AIDS crisis for the Los Angeles Times, back when anti-viral medications were still experimental, a work in progress. I interviewed gay men who were dying in hospice care. I developed a friendship with a woman named Linda who became infected by her husband, who had contracted HIV from a transfusion early in the crisis when the blood supply was unsafe. I would later shed tears at her funeral. I shuddered to imagine Los Angeles’ – no, America’s grief when the great and greatly popular Magic Johnson died tragically young.


Yet Magic is thriving, still something of hero whose interests range from TV commentary to a cinema chain that bears his name to his part ownership of Los Angeles Dodgers baseball franchise. He is often mentioned in news reports – and, these days, those stories rarely note his HIV status. That’s considered old news, and largely irrelevant. His health is so robust that Magic has even felt compelled to deny rumors that his diagnosis was some sort of hoax. He recently told interviewers about his daily regimen of drugs that have made HIV “dormant” in his system.


As Magic became a role model for living with HIV, America has learned to cope with the virus too. The public’s fear is now more rational, less ignorant, as treatments improved and understanding grew. Avoiding the blood-borne virus is not difficult if you practice “safe sex” and do not share needles used by intravenous drug users.


As our visit to the orphanage wound down, my wife and our friend Kelly were talking about another idea: How about a field trip to bring these kids to Hanoi to visit the zoo, go to a movie or splash around at the water park. Something, maybe, to make them feel a bit less isolated – more normal and free.


Not a bad idea at all. 


But is Vietnam ready for that? 

Tuoi tre

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