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‘Shock, despair, and helplessness’ in Singapore after HIV data breach

‘Shock, despair, and helplessness’ in Singapore after HIV data breach

A blood test (Photo: health.mil)

The Ministry of Health in Singapore this weekend began calling people living with HIV to tell them that their medical records had been leaked online.

A US man deported from Singapore has possession of personal information of 14,200 people living with HIV.

He published the details online earlier this month before Singaporean authorities were alerted and had it removed.

The leaked data included names, identification numbers, phone numbers, addresses, HIV test results, and medical information.

What has happened? 

‘This data breach is quite possibly the worst thing that could happen to someone living with HIV in Singapore’ executive director of LGBTI support group Oogachaga, Leow Yangfa, told Gay Star News.

The social worker said many people were distressed and emotionally affected.

Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV is widespread in Singapore. What’s more, there are no legal protections to defend against discrimination based on HIV status.

Singapore only lifted a ban on HIV positive visitors in 2015.

The majority of people living with HIV choose to keep their status hidden from family, friends, employers, and colleagues.

Rayner Tan, an HIV researcher in Singapore, said he felt ‘shock, despair, and helplessness’.

Singapore's LGBTI even Pink Dot says Singapore is ready to repeal anti-gay legislation Section 377A (Photo: Facebook)
Singapore’s LGBTI event Pink Dot says Singapore is ready to repeal anti-gay legislation Section 377A (Photo: Facebook)

Who has been affected?

About 7,600 Singaporeans are living with HIV, with 91% of people knowing their HIV status and 77% on anti-retroviral treatments.

The health ministry said the data and contact details of 5,400 Singaporeans diagnosed up to 2013 were leaked online.

The same details of 8,800 foreigners diagnosed up to 2011 were also leaked. Many had applied to Singapore for visas or work permits which require health checks.

A large proportion of HIV transmissions are between men who have sex with men. In conservative Singapore, gay sex is punishable by up to two years in prison under the city state’s colonial-era penal code.

Authorities rarely use the law but the majority of Singaporeans support it. Other marginalized people, such as sex workers or people who inject drugs, are disproportionately affected.

‘The data breach has placed this group of vulnerable individuals in an even more vulnerable position’ Bi Ling, a counselor at Heart Knocks Counselling told Gay Star News.

‘I cannot imagine what they must be going through’ she said.

Yangfa described one ‘unnecessarily stressful’ situation in which the health ministry called a person living with HIV on their family’s landline.

‘This sounded alarm bells for the family member answering the call, which inadvertently put pressure on him to explain why MOH was calling him at home on a Sunday,’ Yangfa explained.

‘Our client had to re-evaluate whether he should disclose his HIV status to his family.’

Why is it so bad?

There is a huge amount of stigma and discrimination around HIV. People also stigmatize some of the ways HIV is transmitted such as sex between men and sex work.

Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific, Eamonn Murphy commended Singapore for acting quickly to improve security.

But, Murphy warned, ‘it certainly should be a call for the government to reflect on why citizens would be so scared of people knowing their status’.

Fear and discrimination, he said, were ‘the biggest impediment in getting people to access services’.

Social workers and HIV and AIDS professionals told Gay Star News that the breach would affect the public’s trust in the government.

This may then put off getting tested or seeking treatment, leading to more HIV cases.

What can be done?

Bi Ling urged people to create a safety plan for themselves. ‘As challenging as it may be, I encourage them to reach out to someone they trust’.

The ministry of health and a number of different organizations have helplines people can call. They are below.

Vanessa Ho is executive director of the X Project which supports Singapore’s sex workers.

‘The only way to protect people now is to enact anti-discrimination legislation’ she told Gay Star News. ‘That way we can rebuild the faith in the system’.

The X Project also encouraged the government to repeal elements of the Infectious Diseases Act and the Immigration Act which discriminate against people living with HIV.

‘The government should be putting anti-discrimination legislation together to protect people’ urged Murphy.

If you are affected and need support, please contact Oogachaga on their anonymous, confidential hotline.

People can also contact Heart KnocksProject X, Action for Aids, and Aware.

The Ministry of Health has also set up a hotline for people who have information or concerns. The number is: +65 6325 9220.