Families of seafarers exposed to high risks of HIV

Being married to a Filipino seafarer for 12 years, Edna (not her real name) has grown accustomed to numerous difficulties when her husband sailed out to the sea.
She managed to endure long months of separation and to singlehandedly raise two toddlers, but she felt helpless after her husband contracted the HIV and passed the virus on to her.

The 38-year-old wife said her husband might have been infected in a casual and unprotected sex with women in Latin America. In 2004, he was declared unfit to work and she became the sole bread earner in the family. Three years later, she was also tested positive for the HIV.

Edna is one of the estimated 1.7 million women in Asia who are living with HIV/AIDS. A study released by UNAIDS estimates that 90 percent of these women were infected by their long-time boyfriends or husbands.

"The confluence of 'mobile men' with money away from family and social connections and with interaction with local communities and other mobile populations make for a heightened HIV- vulnerable setting," Asian Development Bank Vice-President Ursula Schaefer-Preuss told a recent AIDS congress held in Indonesia. 

Even though the bank puts more emphasis on construction workers and long-distance truck drivers, seafarers are nevertheless classified as part of the "mobile men with money." Government data show that about 350,000 Filipino seafarers are deployed overseas, accounting for 20 to 40 percent of all seafarers in the world.

Returning overseas contract workers have become a major source of HIV infection in the Philippines. The country's National AIDS Council reported that around 35 percent of the new HIV infection cases last year were overseas Filipino workers, mostly seafarers.

About 90 percent of the HIV infected Filipinos got the virus through sexual contact. In fact, sex workers tag foreign seamen as ideal customers, health experts said. Having multiple partners and not applying proper protection, these seafarers make themselves and their home-staying spouses vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS.

The United Nations estimates that about 5.4 million people live with HIV/ AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, with 640,000 dying from AIDS-related diseases.

International agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Philippines have launched programs targeting Filipino seafarers throughout their mobility, pre-departure, on ship activities and upon return. Programs that deal with spousal infections are also under evaluation.

Lectures on HIV/AIDS were given; condoms were handed out; HIV voluntary counseling and testing services were provided upon recruitment.

But Edna's problem has yet been dealt with. "When will my husband be allowed to go back to work?" she asked.

Most shipping companies, as in other businesses, ban the employment of people who live with HIV/AIDS.

After repeatedly being turned down, Edna's family was forced to live on selling groceries and helping people re-load their mobile- phones.

"But the income is only a fraction of what he used to make as a seafarer," Edna said. "I just hope that a policy will also be written about allowing infected seafarers to go back to work."

Philstar, August 28, 2009


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