I was privileged to be one of eight Magnum photographers who went around the world as part of the Global Fund Access to Life project.The exhibition has already traveled to seven countries and is now at the United Nations in New York.
The GF reports that one billion dollars has been raised as a result of this effort.That means that five million people have been able to go on antiretroviral treatments.
I had photographed AIDS patients before, but this assignment was different. It offered me the chance to see the positive results of the new AIDS treatments. The plan was that I was to meet the people who were being given free treatments that would keep them alive.
Nguyen Van Louc
Luan was a young woman who had just married at 19, had a small child, and expected to live a typical farmer’s life in the countryside. Out of the blue, she learned that her husband was dying from AIDS – and that she too had been infected with the virus. Knowing free treatment was available was the one thing that gave her a little bit of hope.
Luoc said he and his brother had shared a needle to inject vitamins, but his brother was infected with AIDS at the time. Sadly, Luoc died before the assignment was completed.
Nguyen Van Luoc and his wife return to their home after visiting a local clinic. Due to his delicate health, she steadies him as they walk down a mud path between fields which will eventually grow rice. Two of their dogs greet them as they approach the house.
Nguyen Van Luoc sitting in bed at home late in the morning. Normally he would be out in the field working, but due to his damaged immune system from HIV, he developed tuberculosis.
Duong Van Tuyen
Luong reacts emotionally to discovering that she too is HIV-positive. Although their marriage became rocky once Tuyen was diagnosed with AIDS, Luong was resigned to her fate.
Luong consoles the couple’s son Toan, 2008
Nguyen Quoc Khanh
The third person I photographed was Tiep. She had a breakfast stall in the market that was her family’s main source of income. But once people learned that her husband, Khanh, had AIDS, many of them stopped buying food from her. Yet Khanh represents the positive side of the AIDS story; he’s now recovering and knows it wouldn’t have turned out this way had he not received free treatment.
Nguyen Quoc Khanh, 44, husband of Tiep, father of Tanh, 16, and Binh, 13, began using opium when working in a gold mine. When opium sellers switched to heroin around 1995, Khanh did too, and then succombed to shared needle use.
Khanh first fell ill in 2002 and in 2007 he acquired TB. By the time he started antiretroviral treament, he was so weak he spent most of his life in bed. Only a few months after he began taking his ARVs he had found work and refurbrished their apartment.
Nguyen Quoc Khanh waiting to get his results from his blood test.
Nguyen Quoc Khanh with portrait of himself prepared for a shrine in the event of his death.
Nguyen Quoc Khanh’s wife, Tiep, and son, Binh, watch Nguyen Quoc Khanh in bed.
After four months of treatment, Nguyen Quoc Khanh showed significant improvement and was able to go back to work. In the evening he demonstrates some martial arts moves to his daughter that he learned in his youth. His wife is grateful for the dignity the treatment had brought back to her husbandand the family. She says, “when you’re between death and life and you come back, your health becomes precious.” His work as a painter, sporadic as it is because he can’t afford to travel far, gives him and the family more inspiration than income, but they take it gratefully.
The percentage of Vietnam’s population infected with HIV is still low, at less than 1 percent. Most Vietnamese living with HIV became infected through contaminated needles while injecting drugs, and within this group, the rate of infection is radically higher. Because heroin and other drugs are cheap and casual use is common, HIV infection through drug use affects a larger part of the population in Vietnam than in many other countries.
It is gratifying to know that five million people have already gotten free medicine as a result of the donations made because of this exhibition.
ACCESS TO LIFE STATEMENT
Since the early 1980s, AIDS has ravaged the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS. But over the past few years, a quiet global revolution has enabled millions of people infected by HIV to live healthy lives.
In the early 1990s, when antiretroviral drugs became available, AIDS was transformed from a certain death sentence to a manageable, chronic disease–but only for some. The expense of the drugs and their distribution prevented 95 percent of those living with HIV from getting access to them. International outrage that millions were dying because of economic disparity helped reduce drug prices, and also helped to create the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in 2002. Through the Global Fund and the U.S. President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, the world began to invest in a massive roll out of antiretroviral treatment in more than 100 developing countries. Doctors and health care workers around the world have adapted complicated procedures to settings where people often could not access even the most basic care. Already, millions of lives that otherwise might have been lost are being saved. Equally important, providing treatment is becoming a central part of the efforts to prevent further spread of the disease.