Subject: A&U: AIDS in East Timor

A&U Magazine


Joe Thomas

East Timor

Joe Thomas, an Australian citizen of Indian heritage, lives and works in Dili, the capital of newly independent East Timor. As the Director of the Church World Service’s East Timor HIV support program (CWS is a New York-based international NGO), Joe has launched HIV prevention projects in India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Mongolia.

East Timor, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, north of Australia, fought a protracted and costly civil war against Indonesia. Last year, East Timor finally gained its independence when the United Nations mandated that Indonesia relinquish sovereignty. With a population of approximately 700,000, East Timor is about the size of Connecticut (nearly 6,000 square miles). The ethnicity is mostly Malay and Papuain, and the official languages are Portuguese and Tetum.

What is the AIDS situation in East Timor?

East Timor, emerging from the shadows of occupation and violence, has a new enemy to face—HIV. Even though there are just seven known HIV cases, many believe that that is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Fortunately, there is a high level of commitment to AIDS prevention among the Ministry of Health, NGOs, and the newly elected government. The government is deeply concerned that HIV/AIDS will exacerbate poverty and hinder the economic and social development of our young nation. Many social factors exist that might facilitate the rapid spread of HIV, e.g. ,massive social dislocation engendered by the long civil war, cross-border migration, high unemployment, illiteracy among the rural population, and a minimal awareness about HIV/AIDS.

How did you initially get involved with HIV/AIDS, and what motivated you to become an AIDS activist?

For three years in the early nineties, I worked with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong’s refugee detention centres. In one of the camps, a large number of people were injecting drugs. I was asked to develop a plan for intervention to reduce the risk of HIV among this population. Since that time, I have been working on HIV/AIDS-related issues. (From one of the only two Internet cafés in East Timor, Joe moderates several electronic forums on AIDS. See below for the URLs.)

Understandably, East Timor is in its early stages of collecting HIV data. Only one HIV counseling and testing unit presently exists, which is operated by the Ministry of Health.

According to a fervent Joe, East Timor has much work ahead: “Resources and technical skills are urgently needed.” He proposes a continuing advocacy campaign with the elected representatives, develop stigma and discrimination reduction campaigns, provide HIV prevention education in all the local languages, and engage church leaders in promoting condom use. There is also a need for HIV support services, long-term HIV care and treatment strategizing, and prevention programs to address vulnerable populations, especially youth.

What is the healthcare situation in your city?

The government largely depends on donor assistance, which is coordinated by the World Bank. Under the watchful eyes of the World Bank, the budget allocation for health is approximately $10 million annually, which includes the resources earmarked for the rehabilitation of health service infrastructures. The AIDS-specific allocations amount to only a few thousand dollars.

Is there sufficient governmental support for AIDS programs?

We have support from the President, Prime Minister, and Minister of Health. They have actively advocated [for AIDS], and support the need for an early intervention. The Cabinet of the Ministers has approved a national strategic plan for HIV prevention and care. The East Timor government sponsors prevention programs, but these are limited to public information posters, and television and radio spots. CWS disseminates this information to small groups of church officials and public opinion leaders.

How has the AIDS epidemic changed your thinking about life and/or death?

Over the past decade, I have lost several of my good friends to HIV infection. The willingness to fight the disease keeps many of my friends and colleagues alive. We fight against prejudice, racism, and social inequities. These are the core elements of HIV activism, and of life itself.

What can we, as individuals, do to help during the AIDS crisis?

Nurture a willingness to stand up and being counted; to take sides and face the consequences; and to constantly learn and translate our knowledge into action.

Joe’s Web forums:, or

December 2003

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