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Center offers free STI testing to foreign residents of Korea

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A sign shows KHAP and iSHAP are located on the third floor of this building. / Courtesy of KHAP
A sign shows KHAP and iSHAP are located on the third floor of this building. / Courtesy of KHAP

By Jon Dunbar

Up past Itaewon's colorfully named Hooker Hill and Homo Hill, medical professionals showed up in an innocuous clinic space, located above a pizzeria and a transgender bar, for one day a week to collect medical samples from anyone who showed up. The anonymous patients getting tested for sexually transmitted infections received the test results by text message a few days later.

A sign hanging out front identifies the Korea Federation for HIV/AIDS Prevention (KHAP), which since 2003 has been running a service here to provide free STI testing, counseling and information to foreign residents. It also operates public health campaigns and provides funding support for patients in need.

KHAP is run by the National Health Promotion Fund, a subsidy of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, under the supervision of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), although donations are also accepted from private individuals.

"KHAP exists for all foreign residents in the country and does not target specific groups," said Hong Min-wook, the manager of KHAP. "Matters concerning personal diseases, as well as venereal disease tests, are about privacy, and there is no reason to leak them to the outside world unless there is a special reason. The reason for anonymous testing is not to hide it from family, work or government, but to protect sensitive personal information of individuals."

People who want the center's STI testing services need to visit to check availability, because the center operates in different locations on different days of the week, and also offers only certain testing services on particular days. It's run almost like a pop-up business, except, rather than selling some hot new product, they're drawing blood, collecting urine samples and swabbing oral mucosal cells.

KHAP is operated by employees as well as volunteers. "Clinical pathologists necessary for the examination are present, and doctors are recruited as external personnel for examination days," Hong said.

KHAP is usually active at its Itaewon office on Fridays and Saturdays, and operates in northeastern Seoul's Gireum area on Thursdays. It also operates monthly in Gyeonggi Province's city of Ansan, which has a large foreign population, and Busan. There are one-off testing days at special events all over the country as well.

"It is currently difficult to operate more regularly due to the lack of clients, lack of personnel, and administrative work," Hong said. "If the number of foreigners coming to get tested increases, the inspection dates will be increased, and for this, more manpower and budget support will be needed. For the sustainable operation of KHAP, more foreign residents of Korea should be aware of the existence of KHAP centers."

KHAP operates based on the system established by the Ivan Stop HIV/AIDS Project (iSHAP), run under the same umbrella, which caters mainly to Korean sexual minorities such as gays, bisexual men and all men who have sex with men (MSM). It also caters to transgender women.

"The iSHAP examination system has been a stable model for many years," Hong said. "KHAP has established its current inspection system by conducting simulations using the iSHAP model several times and correcting and supplementing problems."

Hong cited KDCA data showing that 975 HIV infections were newly reported in 2021, of which he said 773 were Korean nationals and 202 were foreign nationals. He added that among the 773 patients of Korean nationality, 345 were men who reported having sexual activity with other men, while 187 stated they were heterosexual and 240 did not respond.

However, Hong stresses that these services are not being offered out of perceptions that minority populations such as people of foreign nationality or men who have sex with men are to blame or are some kind of dirty carriers of disease.

"KHAP Center disagrees with the perception that foreigners such as U.S. Forces Korea, English teachers, migrant workers, etc. are the main culprits of the inflow and spread of HIV," Hong said. "The vulnerable group of HIV infections doesn't mean they're the main culprit of the spread of HIV, but they're the victims of HIV. That's why KHAP is conducting this project for foreigners ― to reduce foreign victims of HIV."

He added that the center has never come under direct attack or opposition by hateful forces. "But," he added, "It is operating carefully due to homophobia and hatred directed towards HIV-infected people in Korean society."

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