Meet Avin Tan, S'pore's only living HIV patient who has gone public with his condition
His mother could not stop crying when he told her that he had contracted HIV.
For three years, Mr Avin Tan had been fearing this moment.
He tells this reporter the fears he had then: "What if she couldn't recover from the shock? What if she kicked me out of the house? Worse, what if she disowned me?"
Adds Mr Tan, visibly affected by this recollection from 2012: "I have heard stories of people who were disowned. I was scared for a long time."
As a manager working in Action for Aids (AFA), the 29-year-old knows of many cases where relationships broke down after people "came out".
AFA is an advocacy group dedicated to fighting HIV and Aids in Singapore.
"In most cases, parents focus on blame. Why did you get it? How did you get it? From who?"
To Mr Tan's relief, his mother's initial response was of concern rather than blame.
He recalls: "I was so thankful when the first thing she asked was if I could cope and if I could afford the medication.
"I mean, she was crying, but I felt a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders."
Mr Tan also had to slowly break the news to his father over a longer period of time as "he has a tendency to blame himself".
But the fear is gone.
FACE OF THE DISEASE
Coming out about his condition was the best thing that happened to Mr Tan since he was diagnosed with HIV in 2009.
He has since also come out publicly and is the only living Singaporean to have done so, the first being Mr Paddy Chew who died in 1998.
He has become the face of a disease that is widely talked about but has few patients willing to step forward to spread awareness about it.
Yesterday, Mr Tan was the opening speaker at the ninth Singapore Aids Conference at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. (See report on far right.)
"I didn't exactly want to be the face of HIV, but I only realised what it meant when people started sending me e-mails about their condition.
"For many of them, I became their first contact person," he says.
Fortunately for him, he had no problem declaring his condition to his employer as he works for AFA.
"Others have lost jobs and family because they came out. I'm lucky that I didn't face many problems."
When we met Mr Tan in the AFA office on Thursday, he happily answered questions about his personal experiences without any inhibitions.
In fact, it is hard to even tell that he suffers from HIV just from looks alone.
"I have got many remarks that I don't look like a person with a deadly disease. I look okay," says the boyish-looking man with a laugh.
Even though it has been about 30 years since HIV and Aids first appeared, the old stigmas still exist.
There are people who refuse to share food and drinks with him, shake his hands or even be in the same room as him.
However, there is a very low risk of being infected through contact or sharing meals, says infectious disease specialist Leong Hoe Nam.
Says Dr Leong: "Let me put it this way - If I pour a cup of HIV virus on my arm, I won't get infected. HIV is transmitted via bodily fluids like blood and semen."
Contracting HIV is also no longer a death sentence like it was previously.
"It's a deadly disease, but only if you don't get treated. As long as you take the medication, you won't die," he adds.
The cost of treatment and medication has also fallen over the years, ranging from $200 to $1,000 a month, depending on the regimen used.
Dr Leong says: "There are also subsidies available, so having no money for HIV treatment is no longer a valid excuse."
Mr Tan says he is not offended when people shun him: "I see it as an opportunity to educate them about HIV."
Despite his positive outlook, the disease has taken a toll.
A partner he was seeing for two months gave up on the relationship because of HIV, even though Mr Tan came clean about his condition from the start.
Before he came out, he was also in constant fear of telling others as he did not know what they would do with the information.
"HIV and Aids are still not well understood by the general public, which is why these fears exist. People need to feel that it's safe to talk about it."
He hopes that more people will step forward to share their stories. More awareness means fewer stigmas.
"I've already paved the way, hopefully more will find the courage to follow," Mr Tan maintains.
His company doesn't know he has HIV
He would rather quit his job than let his employers know that he is HIV positive.
All he is willing to divulge is that he has a health condition and that it is irrelevant to the job.
"If they want to make me specify exactly what it is, I would rather not work there," says 24-year-old James.
He does not want to use his real name.
So secretive is he that he insists on speaking to The New Paper on Sunday over a redirected phone call from a third party.
He chooses his words carefully.
He will only say that he works as an office administrator and that his company does not know about his disease.
James says: "The trick is to not tell, just reassure. Let them know that my condition will not affect my work.
"I'll tell only if people understand that HIV doesn't mean anything with medication. But right now, I feel that it's not enough."
The consequences of telling the truth will probably not end well, he believes.
If he loses his job, it can mean losing his income and his ability to pay for the anti-viral medicine.
And without medication and treatment, he could lose his life.
James says: "I take a significant amount of effort to keep myself healthy and I function normally with medication. I want to keep it that way."
Since he was diagnosed with HIV three years ago, the only people who know about his condition are his mother, sister and a small group of friends.
These are friends he knows would not abandon him.
The decision to tell his mother was harder to make, and he waited a year until he summoned the courage to confess.
"My mum was really upset when she knew about it and she took months to come to terms with it."
He knows of Mr Avin Tan's public disclosure about his HIV, but says he cannot foresee himself doing the same.
"There's just no incentive to come out. I want to choose the people I tell until it's safe to come out without being discriminated against."
'People still think having HIV/Aids is shameful'
Fewer than 20 of the 200 HIV-positive cases which Action For Aids has seen have told their family and friends about their condition, reveals its general manager, Mr Kevin Poh.
None of them have informed their employers about it because they fear being discriminated against, he adds.
Says Mr Poh: "Because it is a sexually transmitted infection, HIV/Aids is not talked about much and people still think it (having the condition) is shameful.
"People living with HIV should be able to tell their employers without fear of prejudice."
His organisation held its ninth Singapore Aids Conference at Tan Tock Seng Hospital yesterday.
RISE IN INFECTIONS
One of the issues discussed at the conference was the rise in infections among homosexual men.
The Ministry of Health yesterday revealed that there were 155 new cases of HIV infections reported among Singapore residents in the first six months of this year.
Of these, almost half - 73 cases - came from homosexual and bisexual transmission.
The trend has been highlighted previously when the 248 cases of gay and bisexual transmissionsignificantly outnumbered the 181 heterosexual transmission cases last year.
Says Mr Poh: "It is a worrying trend and we need to understand why it is rising. Perhaps it is because of the availability of anti-viral medicines that people start to become more complacent."
The conference attracts about 300 to 500 attendees each year, and they comprise HIV/Aids academics, health-care professionals and advocates.