Partners of HIV-positive people who do not have the disease need more support and attention, according to a workshop held in Hanoi on Oct. 26.

The workshop, funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Community Advocacy Initiatives Project Vietnam , aims to raise awareness on issues faced by sero-discordant couples – where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative.

The majority of HIV-negative partners in these couples are women, and most are faced with many health care problems and are vulnerable to infection.

"We have many concerns that need counselling and support, but there is a lack of enabling policies and services to help us," said Do Thanh Hoang, leader of a self-help group of HIV-negative partners in Quang Ninh. The group was formed in February this year in a bid to fill the void in support organisations for these types of people.

Hoang said the group's members gather to share experiences and raise awareness about ways to protect their health, but the group does not receive much attention from other organisations or the authorities.

While people living with HIV seem to receive more and more attention from society in recent years, their sex partners appear to be forgotten and do not have a strong voice of their own, said Khuat Thi Hai Oanh, director of the Centre for Supporting Community Development Initiatives.

According to a study conducted by the Institute for Social Development Studies and the Vietnam Civil Society Partnership Platform on AIDS in 2009, among 1,300 males living with HIV who took part in the survey, nearly 50 percent are living with a HIV-negative partner.

Another survey of 307 HIV-negative partners of people living with HIV conducted by the Centre for Supporting Community Development Initiatives found that 90 percent of these HIV-negative partners are women. Out of all survey respondents, only 18 percent said they were informed of their partner's HIV status before making the decision to commit to the relationship.

The majority of them did not make the choice to have a positive partner, but decided to stick with their partner because of a strong emotional attachment. Some of the HIV-positive partners were not aware of their own status before the relationship started and some became infected while they were already living together with their partners.

According to Hai Oanh from the Centre for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, the biggest problems faced by these couples are complications in being able to have HIV-negative children and challenges to leading a normal sexual relationship.

"They have huge unsatisfied needs for information on ways to prevent HIV transmission, along with a lack of access to risk-minimised contraception and counselling on their relationships," said Oanh.

She said a lack of proper counselling led to some couples relying on measures to reduce the risk of HIV transmission that are not really effective.

According to Chris Fontaine, Partnerships Adviser of UNAIDS Vietnam , there is growing evidence that most HIV-positive women were infected by their intimate partners.

Vietnamese women, Fontaine said, are widely perceived as being responsible for contraception, but many have a limited say on reproductive issues in their relationships.

Some women, however, hesitate taking a HIV test and have to be persuaded to go to a hospital for a test.

"We are very emotionally vulnerable and have this constant fear of being infected, which makes us avoid doing the test," said Pham Thuy Linh, leader of a self-help group of HIV-negative sex partners in Hanoi .

Both negative sex partners and researchers at the workshop called for more attention from the government and society on HIV-negative partners.

"It is the health sector's responsibility to take care of those vulnerable women and ensure their safety and happiness," said Oanh./.