South Korea AIDS group helps foreigners get anonymous tests
August 29, 2006
SEOUL — Being a foreigner in a country that speaks a tongue-trippingly different language can prove challenging when ordering dinner or shopping for souvenirs outside a few English-friendly neighborhoods.
Now imagine trying to get an AIDS test.
That’s why the Korea UNAIDS Information Support Center has an office in Itaewon, a neighborhood that’s popular with the U.S. military community and other foreigners living in Seoul.
KUISC offers free help to non-Koreans to get tested for AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. They also can help make decisions about what to do if a person tests positive, according to Lee U-bin, one of the center’s counselors.
Currently about 4,000 living in South Korea have HIV or AIDS, according to Lee. People most at risk include migrant workers and homosexual men, she said. Last year, 50 foreigners contracted HIV while living in South Korea, though officials fear those numbers may be underreported, according to Lee.
Foreigners working in the entertainment industry are required to get AIDS tests before entering the country and during their stay, Lee said. Any entertainer — a person who could be a dancer, singer, or even wait staff — is deported if he or she tests positive for HIV, Lee said.
The same automatic deportation happens to any foreigner who tests positive, she said. But the support center, despite being a government-run agency, does not report those cases to the government, she added.
Instead, the center takes its clients to the Yongsan-gu Public Health Center, where HIV and other STD tests are free and confidential. The results usually come back in three to five days. As of mid-August, 114 people sought tests, and all came back negative, according to the center’s statistics.
If a person does test positive, the center usually advises the person to return home and seek treatment there. On occasion, the center can help with small stipends for travel costs to help a person get home, Lee said.
“We try to help them, but it’s very difficult,” she said.
Lee, who speaks English, works mostly with Canadian, Australian and British residents in Seoul who want to get tested for AIDS and other STDs. The center is recruiting other peer leaders from various communities in Seoul who speak other languages — people from European or African nations, for instance — to serve as contacts and translators.
Lee said U.S. servicemembers rarely contact the center for help. The military requires AIDS tests, and soldiers are tested every two years and before and after deployments, according to a spokesman from the 18th Medical Command at Yongsan Garrison.
But the center will take as clients U.S. servicemembers and their friends or sexual partners who want to get tested anonymously. The center typically doesn’t provide its services to South Koreans but won’t turn anyone away, she said.
For the next few weeks, the center will be in its Itaewon location, on the second floor of the Fine Bank building across from Yongsan Garrison’s gate 3. Next month, however, the group is moving to Miari, a neighborhood in northern Seoul known for its red-light district, which is off-limits to the U.S. military.
Lee said she and others are concerned fewer non-South Koreans will find their office after the move. “We are worried about that,” she said.