Condom use not catching on among youth

In spite of massive spending on efforts to counter HIV/AIDS, experts warn that many young Thais are still having unsafe sex.

The problem, according to Sittichok Chaisupasin, a 16-year-old peer educator, is not a lack of knowledge about HIV, but a lack of interest among young people in acting on what they know.

"Many people know HIV is transmitted by having sex," he said. "We also know we should stand up and give our seat to old people on the bus, but we don't do it," he said.

Survey findings confirm Chaisupasin’s observation. While young people consistently demonstrate extremely high levels of knowledge about HIV in surveys, only about 25 percent of young men report using condoms when engaging in casual or risky sex, often because they do not view sex with other young people as risky.

"The real challenge is one of pushing Thai youth (and their elders as well) into converting their 'knowledge' or 'awareness' of HIV risk into changes in their own individual behaviour," said Patrick Brenny, UNAIDS Thailand country director.

Scott Bamber, head of HIV/AIDS for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Thailand, agreed and noted that while young people were aware of the risks of HIV, they often lacked access to life-skills training and services that would help them translate knowledge into behavioural change. They didn’t know, for instance, how to negotiate condom use with a reluctant partner.

Since Thailand reported its first HIV case in 1984, the country has succeeded in reducing the number of new infections from 140,000 a year a decade ago to about 14,000 in 2007. Thailand's goal is to cut new HIV infections by a further 50 percent by 2010, but there has been an increase in incidence among commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, and young people, according to UNAIDS. Unprotected sex accounts for an estimated 90 percent of all new infections.

''Many people know HIV is transmitted by having sex. We also know we should stand up and give our seat to old people on the bus, but we don't do it''

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria recently gave almost $100 million to support Thailand's prevention and treatment strategy over the next six years and some inroads are being made. Through its Teenpath project, PATH, a nonprofit global health organisation, is training young people to work as informal sex educators at schools.

"Many young people don't prepare themselves when they're in a relationship, because sex education focuses more on anatomy and not on real-life situations. That's why we support teachers to develop a sex education curriculum," explained Arisa Sumamal, a Teenpath project assistant in Bangkok.

Teenpath sex educator, Saranya Thinvilai, 16, said some of her peers were having sex with as many as four different partners a week, with condom usage infrequent at best.

"Young people think other people will get [HIV] not them," Thinvilai told IRIN/PlusNews. "For first love relationships, many people don't use condoms because they trust their partners. It's not good, because you don't know how many partners they've had before.”

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