Life

Nafsiah Mboi-Walinono:
A determined fighter of
HIV/AIDS

Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

She took the job as secretary of the National AIDS Commission (KPA) in August with a daunting challenge -- to fight the epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

As of June this year, as many as 10,859 people in Indonesia have been identified as HIV positive and 1,507 have died of the disease.

To make things worse, an estimate revealed that the number of people with HIV positive reached between 110,000 and 130,000 in 2002.

However, Nafsiah Mboi-Walinono is undeterred. She is optimistic that the nation will be able to tackle and control the epidemic.

""The government has shown a strong commitment. I get support from Cabinet ministers, foreign partners and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Insya Allah (God willing), together we can tackle this problem,"" Nafsiah told The Jakarta Post at her office.

Nafsiah is not a new figure in HIV/AIDS-related issues. She served as a senior consultant for the commission and pioneered in 2004 the Sentani Commitment with which the government renewed its commitment to tackling the disease.

Born in Sengkang, South Sulawesi, on July 14, 1940, Nafsiah finished her studies in Epidemiology in the Netherlands, Public Health in Belgium and International Health in Boston, U.S.

Her education abroad has helped Nafsiah win trust from the international community to chair the UN Committee on The Rights of the Child from 1997-1999. She is the first Asian to take the post.

Between 1999 and 2002, Nafsiah was director of Gender and Women's Health at the WHO in Geneva.

Although Nafsiah is saddened that some state officers are still ill-informed about HIV/AIDS, she appreciates the increasing awareness of the public.

The situation today is much better, she said.

At the end of 1980s, a person suspected with HIV/AIDS might face being berated harshly by his or her anxious neighbors. Now, a person can say before the public that he or she is positive with HIV/AIDS.

Recently, there was a meeting in Puncak, West Java, attended by 81 people living with AIDS from 26 provinces. They were people who had announced to the public that they lived with HIV/AIDS.

""The press has also made some changes. It used to describe people with AIDS as people to be isolated. Now, it underlines it is the virus that should be kept away not the patient,"" she said.

Nafsiah said that many Indonesians were still not informed about HIV/AIDS because they thought that the disease was always linked to sexual behavior -- prostitution or adultery.

This opinion makes people unwilling to deal with HIV-infected people. Even a minister, she said, did not want to talk about the disease, which had become one of the main global issues in the past 18 years.

""In fact, the biggest infection is through the use of shared needles among injecting-drug users. This is a challenge for us. We have to inform the public quickly that this disease can be controlled,"" she said.

Nafsiah, the wife of former East Nusa Tenggara governor Ben Mboi, suggested that if the nation wants to confront the epidemic it must prevent new infection among injecting-drug users (IDUs), which according to the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) number as many as 570,000 people.

The AIDS Commission, she said, aims at limiting the rate of new infection to 70-80 percent of drug users and 60-70 percent of people with casual sex behavior.

""That's our top priority. If we can get that, Insya Allah we can control the epidemic,"" she said, adding that epidemic in Papua is also a major concern.

Three approaches will be taken to meet the target. They are community empowerment through NGOs, the enforcement of the health system and supervision of prisons.

Nearly 95 prisons need intensive supervision in a move to prevent new infection among injecting-drug users.

Nafsiah, the grandmother of four, said that it was almost impossible for injecting-drug users to immediately stop their habit.

That is why as part of the move to prevent new infection among drug users the AIDS Commission provided sterile needles for them free of charge.

It is unfortunate that currently not all drug users have access to free sterile needles.

For the time being only drug users in areas in Jakarta, West Java and East Java can get free needles. According to Nafsiah, her office has included the supply of sterile needles in its 2007-2010 Action Plan.

""We will provide sterile needles for Java, Bali and South Sulawesi. If possible we will cover 80 percent of drug users,"" she said.

As for ""moderate"" drug users, Nafsiah substituted drug injection with methadone, a synthetic narcotic that can be used orally once a day.

If the doze is enough, the ""craving"" can disappear.

Apart from supplying drug users with either sterile needles or methadone, the commission also gives medical treatment for their HIV/AIDS or hepatitis -- if they've got the diseases.

Another method to prevent infection is the use of condoms. The commission provides condoms in brothels. The condoms are given to the operator of the prostitution house, who then sells them to the client.

However, observation through the years show that men do not like using condoms. Now, the commission is promoting the use of condoms among women.

While campaigning for the use of condoms, the commission sometimes faces opposition from certain groups in society, who assume the campaign as an approval for adultery.

Responding to such an opinion, Nafsiah simply said that today the nation has only two options -- either enforcing religious values or promoting the use of condoms.

She said that people could ignore someone's irreverent life. But, we should not bar them from using condoms.

According to her, about 10 million men in Indonesia paid for sex in 2002.

""If all of them return to religious values -- and avoid casual sex -- the problem will be settled. I will retire early,"" she said laughing.

There is a daunting challenge ahead. But Nafsiah said that by working hand in hand, this nation will succeed in preventing more infections.

""There are many things that we can do with cooperation. I believe in teamwork. We can fulfill each other's dreams,"" she said.

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