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[Op-Ed] The Danger of AIDS in Korea

Posted March. 16, 2009 09:48,   


The 1993 Hollywood film “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer with AIDS raised public awareness about the disease. Moviegoers were greatly touched by the scene where Hanks’ character shows a lunatic act while listening to the aria “La Mamma Morta” several days before his death. The movie aimed to bring the spotlight on prejudice and discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients and swept the 1994 Academy Awards. To boost the movie’s sense of realism, director Jonathan Demme had 53 HIV/AIDS patients play supporting roles or work in production.

Around the time the film was released, people thought AIDS was an incurable disease that struck only homosexuals, and Korea was largely free from the deadly disease. Two decades later, however, things have greatly changed. AIDS is no longer an incurable disease. Though a vaccine that wards off HIV has yet to be developed, potent anti-retroviral AIDS drugs help patients prolong their lives by reducing the toxicity of the virus and maintaining their immune systems. Basketball icon Magic Johnson, who retired from his sport in 1991 after announcing that he contracted HIV, still has robust health thanks to such drugs. Fuzeon, manufactured by the pharmaceutical multinational Roche, is a leading anti-HIV drug that has saved many lives. Unfortunately, the drug is unavailable on the Korean market due to disagreement over insurance prices.

Korea has seen a steep increase in the number of HIV-positive people. According to the Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Ministry, more than 6,000 people in Korea were infected with HIV as the end of last year. Of them, some 1,000 died and the remaining patients have got regular checkups and taken medication. Though the country has fewer AIDS patients than India and Thailand, the number is rapidly growing. The steep rise is partly blamed on an influx of foreign workers, including English lecturers, and higher promiscuity among Korean youths.

The news of an HIV-infected taxi driver who had sex with scores of women has rocked the nation. Medical Web sites are being bombarded with inquiries about AIDS symptoms and applications for the HIV test have jumped ten-fold. Generally, HIV/AIDS patients avoid contact with people because contracting the disease is lethal for their weakened immune system. If a HIV-positive person attempts to purposely spread the disease, however, there is no way to block him or her from doing so. In the wake of the news, calls are rising that the 1987 AIDS prevention law is ineffective to stem the spread of the deadly disease. The country’s AIDS control and prevention system should be urgently revamped.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)