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TV drama sheds
light on social stigma attached to AIDS in South Korea

TV drama sheds
light on social stigma attached to AIDS in South Korea

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 Asian country.

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.

Since its 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 near her.

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.

''People's 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 stereotype.'

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 she bleeds.

''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 strange.''

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)

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