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Body Positive: Providing the final safety net

Thu 8 Mar 2012 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

It's not too difficult to imagine the Midnight Express imagery which flashed through the minds of the Body Positive team when they fielded an urgent request to provide assistance for a man locked up in a Thai jail. Much of the identifying detail regarding the HIV-infected Kiwi man's conviction and identity have been left out of this story but, perversely, this is actually Body Positive's story, serving to illustrate the work the organisation and others like it do to rescue HIV positive people who have fallen through the cracks of bigger and better resourced agencies. Thai jails are notoriously the stuff of horror stories but as if the day to day unsanitary living conditions, overcrowding and brutality weren't enough the man needing help was facing three years of hell and being denied his life-sustaining HIV medications. In the unsanitary and stressful jail conditions his health was almost inevitably at risk and without the meds the HIV would swamp his body's defences leaving him open to all manner of deadly infections. A cry for help which orginated from a staff member at the NZ Embassy in Bangkok was routed through Foreign Affairs in Wellington and the NZ AIDS Foundation to Body Positive, says BP General Manager Bruce Kilmister. The Thai government will supply medications to its own citizens in jail but not to foreigners. The Medical Officer at the jail would prescribe the vital but highly expensive drugs. But where would they come from? Kilmister is a little coy about the exact details but through its connections and resources BP managed to establish a guaranteed supply of the desperately needed anti-retroviral medications and started sending off regular shipments. But they could never be sure that the parcels would actually get through. A break from taking HIV drugs, even for a few days, can leave them ineffectual and undermine the effectiveness of alternative drugs. Eventually BP managed to find cash funding and regularly transferred that money to Thailand, where the drugs were purchased on their behalf by "a sister peer support organisation" and more reliably passed to the Kiwi inmate. For three years Body Positive ensured the uninterrupted supply of medicines to the incarcerated man and kept him alive. On his recent release the HIV positive man was summarily deported to New Zealand. From the humid tropical heat of Thailand he stepped out into the middle of a New Zealand winter. "The poor guy arrived off the plane in just jandals, shorts and two thin t-shirts," says Kilmister, sadly shaking his head. "We met him at the airport and it was clear he needed more assistance." Three years in jail, his conviction and his HIV status had isolated the man from his family and past friends. There was no one he could turn to for help, but Body Positive was ready to do what it could. From the cash-strapped Wellness fund and from its own meagre resources BP stumped up an emergency grant to assist with much-needed warm clothing, a few toiletries and essential immediate accommodation. They would go on to help the man find more permanent housing and even facilitated a part time job to help him get back on his feet for the future. Body Positive and its sister organisations such as Positive Women frequently step in to help those fallen on hard times whose HIV positive state invariably complicates matters and threatens their health and well-being. Calls, sometimes in the middle of the night, from WINZ, police, probation officers, community support agencies and friends of people struggling with the virus in their lives, all are answered by the BP crew. All of whom are themselves coping every day with HIV in their own lives. If you have thoughts or suggestions on ways the Body Positive and Wellness Fund coffers can be topped up contact Body Positive through the website link below. Jay Bennie - 8th March 2012    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Thursday, 8th March 2012 - 4:16pm

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