HCM CITY — It’s Friday afternoon.
A group of young men sit quietly on their motorbikes or on benches at a corner of the September 23 Park in the heart of HCM City.
A van painted white and blue stands nearby.
Unless you are a very curious person, the men and the van are not likely to grab your attention.
But the gathering of men and the van is no ordinary event.
Most of the men are gay and sex workers; and they come here to get their health checked for free in the van, which is a mobile clinic.
One of them said the van is a boon for them because they do not feel comfortable at formal establishments like hospitals and clinics.
Twenty-five year old Tran Nguyen An Truong, who is gay, said he felt more comfortable receiving healthcare advice and HIV testing services in the van that stops at the park every Friday afternoon.
A close friend introduced him to the free service. He has visited the clinic a few times and has never had an uncomfortable experience, Truong said.
Other gay and bisexual men waiting for their turn to meet with the STD (sexually transmitted diseases) consultant and receive HIV testing services echoed Truong.
They said having their health checked at the city’s regular hospitals and clinics were invariably uncomfortable, upsetting experiences because the staff, including doctors, discriminated against them.
"I come here any time I feel uncomfortable about my health. Sometimes after having unsafe sex with friends, or just for a regular blood test," Truong said. The fact that the services here were free was another motivating factor, he said.
When he went to a regular hospital, he felt scared, because no one would really talk to him. They would just collect the blood and give a note for getting the results, he said.
In contrast, the attitude of health staff offering services in the mobile clinic were friendly and he did not feel discriminated against, Truong said.
"Doctors at other hospitals and clinics are grouchy when we want to know further information about our health. Sometimes they have no time to talk with us because they are busy with many patients."
The van, redesigned as an air-conditioned consulting room, ravels to several districts in HCM City to offer free HIV testing and consulting services to everyone, especially sex workers who have low access to formal services.
Nguyen Van Tai, 19, a resident of the city’s Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward, said the clinic gave satisfactory answers to his questions about HIV and ways to prevent it. He said he had not bothered to have his blood tested before he was introduced to the clinic.
Nguyen Thi Hue of the municipal AIDS Prevention Committee said the van was initially donated by a project executed by Medecins Du Monde (MDM) Canada in 2004. About ten peer educators worked for the projects at that time.
The van moved around the city, especially outlying districts to offer free testing for HIV and other STDs, as well as Hepatitis B vaccination services to injecting drug users, sex workers, men who have sex with men, or any one who wanted to have their blood tested. The city did not have many centres offering such services.
In 2007, when the project was completed, the Canadian NGO donated the van to the committee. The HIV/AIDS/STI Community Clinic Network (HCCN) then took over the project and offered services to migrant workers at industrial parks.
The HCCN project was implemented for about nine months and stopped in 2008. Since then the municipal AIDS Prevention Committee has used the truck and keep alive the project until now, in co-operation with peer educators in districts.
"The van offers HIV consulting services to all clients who have high risk of HIV infections. Now, every Friday afternoon, it serves gay and bisexual men. The other days in the week, the van operates elsewhere in the city," Hue said.
The project is supported by the city administration and Family Health International, an international NGO.
Besides the mobile centre, 20 of the city’s 24 districts have clinics for high-risk clients, Hue said, adding doctors and nurses who work for the project receive training on approaches to treating high-risk population segments.
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