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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Personal Journey with HIV: Interview with Avin Tan

Disclaimer: Please don't misunderstand the header, I'm HIV negative.

But today I'm gonna talk about a rather unsexy topic: HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Yes, that sexually transmitted disease that we have been taught to fear since our earlier school days, an illness that we speak of in hushed tones and most of us shun (or stay clear of) those who suffer from it. Having this blog makes me happy that I can use it for a higher purpose, like talking about a cause that is close to my heart. 

So when Avin told me that he needed a last minute helper at AFA's talk at Deutsche Bank, I jumped at the chance. Aside from doing a favour for a buddy, I had always been inquisitive on what kind of work does Action for Aids do exactly and how I can contribute.

Situated in a beautiful contemporary office at Raffles Quay, the office attendees were as modern and liberal thinking as the company. It was heart-warming to see a large turn-out whom signed up for the talk. Presenting were 3 personnel from different segments aiding the support for the HIV-positive.

The talk was mainly done by 3 speakers; firstly Dr David Lye who is from the Institute of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology in Tan Tock Seng. He shed some light on the recent breakthroughs and improvements in medical development for HIV as well as types of transmissions and treatments available. 

Next was Ms  Norani Othman, a manager at Positive Living Center & Anonymous Testing Services, and she shared about the stigma and discrimination faced by HIV patients, and what are the help channels available.

Last but not least was Avin, who shared about his life as someone who has lived with the disease and what AFA (Action for Aids) is, as well as challenges facing the organization and people diagnosed with HIV.

Show's over, great work guys!

Inspired by his story, I speak to Avin Tan, one of my closest friends, and one of only two Singaporeans in the last 30 years to come out with his HIV status.

I first met Avin during my degree course, where the friendly chatty lad and I hit it off almost instantly since we share the same sense of humor. His quirky demeanor imagines himself as a leprechaun; likes tap dancing (and potatoes)... but cannot dance to save his life. A avid lover of the great out doors, he hopes to one day explore New Zealand (sponsors welcomed). He talks candidly about his life and his take on the HIV situation, and his eventual coming to terms with the condition.

1) When did you first discover you tested positive and what was your reaction?

I was first diagnosed back in 2009. I diagnosed myself during a training session with my volunteers. I was very calm then, and proceed to get my confirmation followed by starting my process to receive treatment. Shock and despair only set in much later, as I set out to maintain certain normalcy in my life. Hiding from friends to take my meds when we were out, making excuses to not stay out late and being rejected by someone I liked because of my HIV status.

We tried things out for a few weeks, but neither of us could get over and become comfortable enough to move beyond dating. I broke down when I was watching a TV series, that featured a HIV positive character and he was in a car accident, which he then proceeded to not allow anyone touch him. It finally sank in, the magnitude of my diagnosis, almost two years after.

2) What was the thing that made you stand up and regain your confidence?

At his graduation ceremony at Murdoch University, Perth
It was initially sheer stubbornness, refusing to bow down to it, but, really, it was my friends and family. It was only after I started opening up to more people, and found their over whelming acceptance of me, that I started to understand how discrimination and stigma affects a person.

 It was only through the bravery of my friends, that I am able to see that HIV is but a small part of me. They didn't fear the association, why should I let it define me, and cage myself in it.

3) What do you think, are the major misconceptions or stigmas facing the HIV-positive like yourself?

It's really sad that some of these major misconceptions are as old as the disease is. People who have been through the episode when it was first discovered and during the height of the epidemic, failed to be educated when the disease have progressed so much in the last decade alone. HIV is no longer a death sentence, people should never have to die of a HIV infection today, and HIV can be controlled.

Fronting the AFA walk with Dr Amy Khor
Yet, people are scared to take a test, and rather not find out, because they still subscribe that HIV (or rather AIDS) is a terminal illness. Some believe that HIV can spread through casual contact, and have embarked on fear mongering campaigns to spread ill informed information. That people with HIV should be segregated. SARS and Dengue spreads much faster yet, the amount of stigma associated to them are disproportionately lower.

4) Do you have any last words of encouragements for people who may potentially be positive?

HIV is manageable. There are many people living, incredibly healthy lives today, and that everything will always be ok in the end. There may be many things to deal with, but there's always a solution, sitting on them is one, but not a very efficient one.

5) How or what can we do to help?

As a opinion leader, share this post, so as many people as possible should read it.
As a teacher, stop using fear tactics to educate young adults.
As a parent, talk to your child about safer sex and what they should do when they feel a tingling sensation down there.
As a sexually active individual, do the responsible thing, and take your health and your safety back into your hands. Insist on a condom, reduce number of sexual partners and be faithful to your partner.
As a company, organization or institution, give HIV some consideration, invite me to give an educational talk to your staff, arrange for anonymous testing to be made available.

A finalist in a inter-school PR Campaigns competition

Reject mandatory testing as part of your recruitment process, as it's a violation of human rights.

Lastly review the HR policies to be more inclusive. As the government, remove the anarchic travel ban, increase subsidies for prevention and education work. Increase subsidies to bring down the cost of HIV management.

Stop criminalizing persons living with HIV.

Avin is resounding proof that life does not end even if one is diagnosed with HIV, and I hope that his tale is one that has touched and inspired you as much as it did for me. He has defied the odds and overcame the adversity to carve out a different kind of life path to forge on. So instead of sympathy and condescension, do give a helping hand, please have a bigger heart and an open mind to lend support to those who need it. 

True friends never judge.

So join me in raising a glass to my dear friend Avin; whom I know as many things: A mean cook, the life of the party and an exceptionally smart fellow student....everything, except a victim to HIV. To be honest, when he first broke me the news, I was at work and felt such overwhelming sadness that I had to leave office to get my emotions in order. But that was because I thought that my friend had an expiry date, and was ignorant about the controllable and even longevity-prolonging HIV treatments out there.

Avin is going be speaking at Hong Lim Park this coming Saturday, around 9pm at Hong Lim Park; and it would be amazing if you can lend your support for this amazing cause. 'Cause I know I'll be there in the crowd, giving one of the loudest cheers for this brave man.

You make me so proud to have you as a friend, Av :)

Do check out the Action for Aids facebook and website to know more or how you can make a difference!
And if you have a minute, it would mean the world for you to write some words of encouragement for my friend on the AFA Singapore page.

Thank you for reading this post, truly means alot to me. :)

PS: Please note that I am not affiliated to AFA Singapore in anyway, and that all opinions expressed are of my own or have been released with prior approval of my interviewee, Avin Tan.


  1. A very inspiring post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for writing and sharing. For every comment here I believe countless more have read and appreciated the page

  3. Thank you for such a good article. Unlike your article, there is a lot of bad info on HIV out there on the ether. Guys and Gals be careful what you read. I personally found this site helpful: Real doc answering your HIV questions. And it is FREE! Hope you guys find it helpful too.


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