AIDS Puts Vietnamese Community, Too, at Risk : Health: Study says disease seems to be spreading among male homosexuals, indicating culture isn’t enough to protect the population.


Vietnamese have as much chance of contracting AIDS as anybody else in Orange County, dashing hopes that they might be culturally protected from the deadly disease, researchers said Saturday in reporting the results of a two-year study.

The study, which included confidential HIV blood testing and the first survey of sexual habits within a Vietnamese community, was conducted by the Orange County Health Care Agency with a $168,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control.

Preliminary results presented at an all-day gathering of Vietnamese community members in Westminster’s Little Saigon showed that, mirroring the rest of society, AIDS seems to be spreading among the Vietnamese male homosexual population, probably contracted in sexual relationships with Anglo and Latino men.


“There is a lot of AIDS in Orange County,” said Dr. George Gellert, former Orange County epidemiologist and principal investigator for the Vietnamese HIV/AIDS Project. “We have a major problem. The virus is here, and the risk factor is the same for the Vietnamese population as for the rest of the population.”

In addition, health officials expressed concern that heterosexual Vietnamese men may be exposing themselves and their families to HIV by visiting prostitutes, especially on trips to Thailand and Vietnam, where commercial sex is plentiful and prostitutes have a high incidence of AIDS.

Since Vietnamese represent only 14 AIDS cases, or about 1% of all reported AIDS cases in Orange County, Gellert said, some medical officials had believed they might be less susceptible to the disease. Moreover, he said, an extraordinarily high degree of sexual abstinence among Vietnamese youth is a factor discouraging the spread of the virus.

So Gellert said researchers conducting blood tests for HIV were surprised to find males who tested positive at the public health clinic, the men’s jail and the Orange County Youth Authority. All five men who tested positive at the public health clinic and were promised confidentiality were gay, Gellert said.

Gellert said surveys of 532 men and women revealed that fear of gays is widespread in the Vietnamese community, possibly creating an atmosphere that discourages gays from seeking HIV testing, and that many Vietnamese misunderstand the ways that AIDS is transmitted.

More than two-thirds of the Vietnamese men and women aged 18 to 35 who were surveyed, and four-fifths of the men between 36 and 45, said they would be uncomfortable working with a gay man.


Moreover, 36% of the younger Vietnamese men, 45% of the older men and 55% of the women who were surveyed believed that people with AIDS should be quarantined, apparently unaware of expert medical opinion that such a drastic measure is not necessary.

Gellert said that while most Vietnamese who were surveyed understood correctly that AIDS is contracted through unprotected sex, sharing of needles by drug users and transmission between a mother and child during pregnancy, over a third of all the men and 60% of the women mistakenly believed that HIV also could be contracted merely by touching someone.

Also, a large percent of those surveyed said they thought HIV could be transmitted by blood transfusions or needles in local hospitals--neither of which is true any longer, Gellert stressed. In each instance, the surveys showed, women were even less informed than men.

Gellert said data gathered in the project is still being analyzed. Final reports on the project will be published next year.

But he added that preliminary results show the need for bilingual AIDS education and improving accessibility to HIV testing within the Vietnamese community. Rick Greenwood, Orange County director of public health for disease prevention and control, said arrangements are being made to establish an HIV testing clinic in Little Saigon.

Gellert said an AIDS education program should be launched by Vietnamese and take into account the different Vietnamese social groups, which vary according to the degree by which they have adopted American culture.


Gellert said the Vietnamese community also will have to grapple with its fear of gays and people with HIV. “This is a very, very big problem,” he said. “It will make it difficult for the community to work together.”

Dr. Co D.L. Pham, president of the Vietnamese Physician Assn. of Southern California, said that as a physician he found the presence of a gay Vietnamese subculture “a little bit shocking. I knew there were some gays, but not that many,” he said, noting that homosexuality is considered unacceptable within the Vietnamese culture.

Alex Hoa, the HIV/AIDS coordinator of the Gay Asian Pacific Support Network, said that Vietnamese gays have been late to organize and that many are still afraid to disclose their sexual orientation. As a result, he said, “we don’t have an Asian face attached to AIDS.”

But Saturday’s conference showed that awareness is growing. “In the U.S., HIV is not just somebody else’s disease,” Pham said. “It is our disease.”