A new TV soap
opera is gaining popularity in South Korea with the
tear-jerking tale of an 8-year-old girl infected with
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS--a disease that
still invites more ostracism than sympathy in the
The MBC network
show Thank You has been winning top ratings in
its time slot with the story of a young HIV carrier--a
rare topic for South Korean dramas, which typically
focus on forbidden love or secret love affairs.
premiere in March, the show's viewership across the country
steadily rose to reach 18.5% of viewers last Thursday,
according to AGB Nielsen Media Research.
In the show, the
child Lee Bom becomes infected with HIV through a blood
transfusion. When villagers find out she has the virus they
pressure Bom and her family--her single mom and
great-grandfather suffering from Alzheimer's--to
leave the small island village. They fear, out of
ignorance, that they will also get infected for just being
The portrayal of
the strong stigma attached to AIDS reflects low
awareness of the disease in South Korea, where AIDS is
becoming increasingly a social issue even though the
rate of the disease's spread here is relatively low.
knowledge of the disease has increased, but discrimination
and prejudice against HIV carriers and AIDS patients
are still very strong and widespread,'' said Kim
Hoon-soo, executive director at the Korea
Confederation for HIV-AIDS Prevention. ''This is not
something that can be changed overnight.''
South Korea has a
relatively low number of people living with HIV--3,891
as of March, according to government statistics. But experts
say the actual number could be at least three or four
times higher--some 13,000 by a United
Nations estimate--with many reluctant to take HIV
tests due to the social stigma of the disease.
The number of new
infections is on the rise, reaching a record 751 last
year--more than double the figure recorded in 2001
when 327 new cases were found.
The stigma of
AIDS in this deeply Confucian society also arises from
people associating the disease with cheating on partners or
engaging in inappropriate intercourse, Kim said.
Sexual contact was the cause for the spread of HIV
infections in nearly 99% of the cases so far reported,
according to government data.
A 2005 survey
showed 52% of 2,022 South Koreans said they would not send
their children to a school where there was an HIV carrier,
according to South Korea's Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. Some 40% of those surveyed also said
HIV sufferers should be quarantined in special
facilities, according to the survey.
Producers of the
new TV drama said they wanted to tell ''the story of
violence that rises from prejudice, discrimination, and
The story is
aimed as a protest against ''foolish people who carelessly
stamp on other people's lives, believing what little
knowledge they have randomly picked up is the grand
truth,'' the producers wrote on the show's Web site,
which also provides factual information about AIDS.
''This kind of
drama will help greatly to improve the public's perception
of the disease,'' said Nam Jeong-gu, a researcher at the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year, the
center for the first time produced a TV drama on an HIV
sufferer as part of a campaign to address misperceived
public fears about AIDS. But the two-episode show only
made it to cable television and an educational TV
channel, because South Korea's three major
broadcasters--KBS (Korean Broadcasting System), MBC
(Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.), and SBS (Seoul
Broadcasting System)--''expressed difficulties in
airing the show that touched on the sensitive issue of
AIDS,'' Nam said.
In a recent
episode of Thank You, which runs through May,
Bom learned why her mom told her never to ask for help when
''Wipe off the
blood by yourself,'' the girl is told. ''And make sure you
put the handkerchief you used in a plastic bag and seal it
before throwing it away.''
Bom is bewildered
and hurt when her friends do not show up for class
after learning she has HIV. Villagers run away in fear when
seeing her, and a neighbor locks up Bom's
great-grandfather thinking the old man has also caught
the virus from living with her.
The girl breaks
into tears when a woman yells at her to get away as she
tries to touch the woman's baby, murmuring between sobs:
''Everyone is strange. Everyone is very, very
The night Bom
finds out on the Internet that she carries a virus that is
contagious, she wraps herself with a blanket and stays as
far away as possible from her mom as they sleep next
to each other. The next morning, she is gone, leaving
a note that reads: ''Mom, please have a happy life.
Don't look for Bom.'' (Bo-Mi Lim, AP)