THAILAND: Increased HIV/AIDS awareness needed - UNAIDS
Bangkok, 31 May 2006 (IRIN) - An overwhelming majority - 85 percent - of Thai youth do not consider HIV an issue they need to be personally concerned with, after nearly a decade without any mass public awareness campaigns on HIV/AIDS, according to a UN official.
“Public information, which was once ubiquitous, has dropped off the radar screen,” Patrick Brenny, Country Coordinator of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Thailand, said on Wednesday at the launch of the UNAIDS 2006 report in the Thai capital, Bangkok. “There is a strong recognition that prevention programming needs to be ramped up,” he added.
Despite the UNAIDS report saying Thailand has made encouraging progress in reducing the spread of the deadly virus, Brenner highlighted that there is a need for greater awareness and public information.
The report indicates that premarital sex has become more commonplace among young Thais. Around 70 percent of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Thailand are detected among the younger generation, indicating that they are engaging in risky behaviour that could expose them to HIV/AIDS.
“Thailand must revive its flagging HIV/AIDS awareness programmes to reach out to a new generation of young people, who currently see the virus as a problem largely affecting their elders,” the UNAIDS official warned. “They are clearly vulnerable to infection with HIV,” he maintained.
In the global battle against HIV/AIDS, the Southeast Asian country’s pragmatic response to the virus has long been considered a role model for other countries to follow. As the virus spread rapidly through the nation’s large commercial sex industry in the early 1990s, Bangkok adopted a 100 percent condom use programme, which aimed to ensure full condom use in all paid sexual encounters.
The campaign had political backing from the then prime minister and prominent social activist, Meechai Viravaidya, also known as “Mr Condom,” who spearheaded high-profile mass education campaigns to inform the Thai public about the dangers of the virus and the main modes of transmission.
The annual number of new infections dropped from 140,000 a year at its peak, to around 20,000 a year currently, in this country of 65 million.
But in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand’s budget for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention was cut dramatically. Since then, most new resources have been shifted towards care and treatment of those already infected.
Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s prime minister since 2001, has also done little to use his considerable clout and public media savvy to raise HIV awareness, critics claim. They add that he is focusing his administration’s efforts instead on general health and on combating under age drinking and drug use.
Bangkok’s “phenomenal achievement” in turning back the tide of new infections in the country in the early 1990s, lulled Thai politicians into a sense of complacency, analysts argue. Progress in fighting the disease convinced politicians that the job of raising public awareness was done and that the nation could move on to the care and treatment of those already infected.
But Bangkok’s goal to reduce the number of new infections - to around 10,000 a year by 2010 - will require fresh efforts at raising public awareness, the UNAIDS spokesman said.