Action for AIDS (AfA) has hit out hard at allegations by Singapore tabloid The New Paper on Sunday citing unnamed sources that up to five of the 65 volunteers in the MSM (men who have sex with men) outreach programme have contracted HIV in the last two years.
The paper remarked: "(T)hese volunteers themselves have contracted HIV, begging the question: Why didn't they practise what they preached?"
A second source said that many of the volunteers are good-looking men under 30 years old and they see the MSM outreach programme as another avenue for them to meet other gay men. The unnamed source added: "I know of many counsellors who have met patients and in the follow-up have become partners."
Roger Winder, co-ordinator of the MSM outreach programme, said that of the 65 volunteers currently with the programme, 15 are young men in their 20s, seven are women and the rest are older men.
He added that although one was likely to have become infected by his boyfriend after becoming a volunteer, the others started volunteering some time after they found out they were HIV-positive.
Winder, who is the coordinator for both the MSM and Anonymous HIV Testing and Counselling clinic, told Fridae in an interview that they know one of the sources who had approached the paper. When asked about the sources' motives, he suggested that one of them could be unhappy with the organisation and some of the people involved; and is trying to undermine their efforts.
Winder however, commended the paper on publishing the interview with a volunteer who became infected despite his involvement in the MSM outreach programme. In the interview with the paper, he conceded that although he is acutely aware of the need to practise safe sex, he had unprotected sex with his committed partner after they had both tested negative. It turned out that his partner became infected after having sex with another person before they started their relationship.
He emphasised that AfA does not require their volunteers to undergo HIV testing before or after recruitment, or at any other juncture of their involvement with the organisation although they would be asked to leave the organisation if they have been found to repeatedly engage in risky behaviour.
A statement issued on 13 July 2005 also stated that AfA welcomes HIV-positive persons as volunteers and supporters as they believe that they are in the best position to advise others on the infection.
The statement from Action for AIDS is reproduced on the next page.
Statement from Action for AIDS issued on 13 July 2005
TNP Claim: Five volunteers from the MSM Outreach Programme tested positive at the anonymous test clinic in the past two years.
FACT: It is likely that only ONE volunteer got infected after becoming a volunteer - the one who was interviewed for the next (second) article. The other four are individuals who started volunteering some time AFTER they found out they were HIV-positive - and such volunteers are invaluable resources.
AfA runs the anonymous HIV testing and counselling clinic at which it is claimed the five tested positive, therefore we would definitely know if more than one volunteer tested positive, and we can therefore categorically state that at most only one volunteer from the MSM Outreach programme tested positive after becoming a volunteer.
We would also like to emphasise and clarify that AfA does not require our volunteers to undergo HIV testing before or after recruitment, or at any other juncture of their involvement with the organisation. Doing so will violate our principle of non-discrimination on the basis of HIV status, as well as the basic human rights of any individual, volunteer or otherwise.
If any of our volunteers would like to have an HIV test, they are treated like any other client at the Anonymous test site.
TNP Claim: AfA does nothing to protect its volunteers.
FACT: New volunteers are screened and trained according the needs of the projects/programmes they are involved in. Such training often includes detailed information about sexual health and safer sex behaviour.
Volunteers are encouraged to practice and are expected to maintain the highest standards of personal behaviour in this regard.
Reminders and updates are sent out to MSM Outreach Programme and other programmes in relation to practising safer sex and other matters.
TNP Claim: (T)here is a possibility, no matter how remote, that these young male volunteers are coming forward because they see the MSM outreach programme as another avenue for them to meet other gay men.
Volunteers are having unsafe sex because "they can't resist the temptation" and that "when they pull down their zips, their brains also drop."
FACT: Our volunteers have different reasons for sacrificing their time and energy to the cause but it has been evident thus far that their motives are honourable and decent.
We are confident that our volunteers are selfless, hardworking, committed and responsible individuals who do their best to raise awareness of safer sex and who would protect themselves and others.
However, volunteers are human beings, too, and are also susceptible to infection and to momentary lapses of judgment. If any of our volunteers test positive despite our efforts to discourage unsafe sexual practices, our response will not be to blame and chastise but to ensure to the best of our ability that they receive adequate support and information. And if they express a desire to continue offering their help, we will not turn them away.
If any of our volunteers are found to repeatedly engage in risky behaviour, they will be asked to leave the organisation.
TNP Claim: "Recently, many of the volunteers have been young, good-looking gay men below 30 years old. And they are 99 per cent gay men."
FACT: Only 15 out of 65 volunteers in the programme are men in their 20s - and there are also seven women. We clearly state that volunteers do not have to be MSM or even male to help out.
In general, AfA does not discriminate in recruiting, accepting or retaining volunteers. We are willing to accept and train anyone who is sincerely committed to helping us achieve our objectives, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or HIV status. We especially do not expect anyone to provide the last two categories of information.
TNP Claim: It is also claimed that volunteers who are supposed to be handling phone calls are spending excessive lengths of time on the phone and are, in fact, "getting to know the other person person on the other end of the line."
FACT: MSM Outreach Programme volunteers do NOT man a hotline. In any case, many of us in AfA regularly deal with clients who feel great anxiety and often require significant amounts of time to deal with the issues that trouble them. To question the intentions of volunteers who spend more time with such clients is an affront to the dedication and concern required to handle such clients.
Misconduct of this nature is almost unheard of among volunteers - there have certainly been no complaints received from clients or other volunteers. Volunteers, especially who handle clients, undergo a screening process and comprehensive training before they take on duties on their own. If there were complaints, we would investigate and act accordingly.
TNP Claim: The unnamed source states that "I know of many counsellors who have met patients and in the follow-up have become partners."
FACT: There have been NO reports of MSM Outreach Programme volunteers becoming partners with clients.
The insinuations reported in the article do great injustice to the incredibly selfless and committed volunteers who sacrifice their time and energy to help AfA runs its various programmes.
Articles which contain such malicious allegations only make our already difficult battles even tougher, given the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and widespread unwillingness to deal with issues pertaining to sexuality.
We are very proud of our volunteers and deeply disappointed that such allegations about them have been made in the media.
AfA recognises the very important role that HIV-positive individuals can and should play in HIV prevention and education activities. This principle of "greater involvement of persons with HIV/AIDS" or GIPA is held as a best practice by WHO, UNAIDS and national AIDS programmes everywhere. AfA welcomes HIV-positive persons as volunteers and supporters as we believe that they are in the best position to advise others on the infection.