Tuesday, October 04, 2005

AIDS Believed on Rise Again in Thailand - AP

AIDS Believed on Rise Again in Thailand
By ALISA TANG, Associated Press Writer Mon Oct 3, 9:50 AM ET
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand was once considered a model in the fight against
but the man behind that success says the country of 63 million has returned to the days of ignorance and that the disease is making a deadly comeback.
Mechai Viravaidya is widely known as Mr. Condom for the aggressive condom distribution and public education campaign he began in the 1990s. He believes there were 25,000 new infections last year, well over the official figure of 19,000.
While that is much less than the 143,000 infections the government counted in 1991, Mechai says the number is growing fast because of unprotected sex, especially among young people.
"It's clear that AIDS has returned to rise again ... . We've gone back to days of ignorance," said Mechai, who is conducting a second AIDS awareness campaign. "There's no reason why next year it won't be 100,000 new cases."
When Thailand recorded its first AIDS case in 1984, the country was believed to be on the verge of a huge AIDS epidemic due to its enormous sex industry. It was estimated that without action, an estimated four million people would be infected by 2002.
The government went into denial, and things changed only in the 1990s when Mechai, a senator and the chairman of a private population association, persuaded the prime minister to head the National AIDS Committee. The budget to fight the epidemic increased 50-fold, and radio and television stations were required to broadcast AIDS education.
The current government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has spent considerable sums on caring for and providing free anti-retroviral drugs to
But Thaksin has not attended meetings of the National AIDS Committee or mentioned AIDS in his statements to Parliament since he took office in February 2001.
"The government budget, the lack of the declaration, the prime minister's abdication from the role, and the consequent weak public education program has resulted in what we have today: a tremendous increase," Mechai said.
Thai government spokesman Suraphong Suebwonglee denied the government was neglecting AIDS but said officials have had to contend with other public health threats.
"In the past two to three years, there has also been bird flu and dengue fever prevention, as well as disease prevention because of food safety and cigarettes," Suraphong told The Associated Press.
He said Thaksin shares Mechai's concern that AIDS will spread among youth. On Saturday Thaksin announced a policy to prevent youth delinquency, including "inappropriate" sexual behavior.
In 2004, sexually transmitted diseases among youth shot up at least 30 percent, and Mechai believes AIDS is on a similar track.
The government estimates 1 million Thais have been infected with HIV and 500,000 have died; Mechai believes there have been 2 million infections and 800,000 HIV/AIDS deaths.
"We think it's underestimated. We don't want to be nasty and call it a lie, but I think it's pretty close to it," Mechai said.
The U.N. Development Program warned in July 2004 that there were clear signs of an AIDS resurgence, with government spending on HIV/AIDS programs dropping from $82 million in 1997 to $25 million in 2003.
Mechai has given up on the government and has started buying condoms to distribute wherever he goes, insisting Thailand need only repeat its earlier successful strategy of public education and condoms. Only 20 percent to 30 percent of young people use condoms consistently, he said.
"With the demise and disappearance of public education, people think it's gone. I've had some kids say to me, 'Is AIDS still around?'" Mechai said.


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