01 January 2000

AFA Article

ST Sept 8, 2005
Action for Aids' probe dispels sex claims
Group's 106 volunteers deny any improper conduct with patients they were counselling

By Lee Hui Chieh
ALLEGATIONS that volunteers from Action for Aids (AFA) had been sexually intimate with people they were counselling have been found to be baseless, an investigation by the Aids awareness group has concluded.

The group's 106 active volunteers denied having sexual relations or engaging in improper conduct with the people they were counselling.

All the volunteers also denied having heard of other volunteers engaging in such behaviour, and most said they would inform their programme coordinator or AFA's executive committee if they found out about anyone doing so.

Ninety of the volunteers were interviewed face to face over five days, for about 30 minutes each.

Another 16 volunteers who could not make it to the interviews were asked to fill up questionnaires.

The interviews were done by two doctors from the National Skin Centre who are not AFA members - Dr Tan Hiok Hee, who heads its department of sexually transmitted infection control, and Dr Priya Sen, an associate consultant.

In their report, the investigators said: 'The volunteers are intensively trained and appear to maintain extremely high professional standards in their capacity as volunteers. They adhere strictly to the AFA volunteer code of conduct and it would seem that any allegations of AFA volunteers having physical or sexually intimate relations with clients were unfounded.'

For example, all the volunteers said that following AFA's rules, they would not give out their personal contact numbers to those they were helping, and do not lock doors during one-to-one counselling sessions.

The probe was sparked by a report in The New Paper on July 10, which said that five of AFA's volunteers had contracted the virus after becoming volunteers, and that there was concern that 'young male volunteers are coming forward because they see the MSM outreach programme as another avenue for them to meet other gay men'.

Volunteers under the MSM (men who have sex with men) outreach programme advocate safe sex and distribute condoms and educational materials at entertainment outlets and events frequented by the gay community.

The AFA had refuted the report, saying only one person tested positive for HIV after becoming a volunteer and it did not mean that he had acquired the infection in his role as a volunteer.

It then started investigating its active volunteers who have regular contact with the public.

The AFA has since also drawn up a code of conduct, with clauses stating that volunteers 'will specifically not engage in any romantic or sexual relationship with clients' and 'will not engage in unsafe sexual practices or other high-risk behaviour'. All its volunteers will be asked to sign the code.

Commenting on the AFA investigations yesterday, The New Paper's news editor Santokh Singh said the thrust of the paper's article had been that the volunteers advocating safe sex were not practising what they were preaching, and not that they had been intimate with their charges.

He said: 'AFA barked up the wrong tree. The New Paper report did not say volunteers caught the virus from their clients.

'It merely pointed to the fact that some AFA volunteers had contracted the HIV virus after they became volunteers. Nowhere did our sources say, allege or allude to the fact that the volunteers caught the virus from their clients. That was a wrong assumption on AFA's part.'

For the Health Ministry, however, the matter now appears to be closed.

In a statement yesterday, the ministry said it 'noted that the investigations did not uncover any unethical conduct, and that AFA is strengthening their internal control by instituting a written code of conduct'.

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