The latest United Nations report released ahead of World Aids
Day today commends Thailand as a country where "strong political
leadership and public commitment" has helped slash the
incidence of HIV.
But the vote of praise, from the UNAids/World Health Organisation
report, came with the sobering estimate that one in 60 Thais is
infected with HIV, and that Aids is the leading cause of death in
The Public Health Ministry yesterday confirmed the view by saying
that about a million Thais were infected with HIV, with another
181,484 suffering full-blown Aids. The ministry put the rate of
new HIV infections at about 55,000 a year.
Thailand earned its good reputation from the active public
information campaigns in the early 1990s when hourly radio and
television spots were mandatory. But the economic crisis in 1997
caused cuts in public spending on national Aids programmes by
about 28% and the prevention budget by about 50%. Private
organisations last year lamented budget cuts for condoms,
education and media campaigns.
The trend now seems to be changing, with a budget of 1.7 billion
baht earmarked for the national Aids programme next year, which
marks a significant increase on this year's 1.5 billion baht.
But this government has been slow to respond to urging from
non-governmental organisations and the network of people living
with Aids, to include HIV/Aids sufferers in its 30-baht medical
Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan only yesterday agreed
to include anti-retroviral drugs in the scheme, and the NGOs and
the network no doubt will have to keep up pressure to ensure
delivery of it. The availability, starting this month, of a
cheaper form of the drugs produced by the Government
Pharmaceutical Organisation should help. But experts remain in
two minds about the cost-effectiveness of these drugs, citing the
limited number of physicians who know enough about them, the
small percentage of HIV sufferers using them, and the likelihood
of their developing an immunity to them within a matter of two
The National Aids Committee is due to renew efforts to plug two
main sources of the disease - commercial sex and intravenous drug
users - through campaigning for condom use, and behaviour change.
Intravenous drugs users have not been, and should become, a
priority target group because they are believed to account for
about a quarter of the new adult infections. Even lower on the
priority list are the migrants from neighbouring countries who
contract HIV/Aids through being drawn or forced into commercial
sex and drugs as part of their limbo existence, which begins in
border areas and moves where employers take them. These people
constitute a sizeable population, probably in the hundreds of
thousands, and the danger they pose is clear by virtue of the
extent of their outreach and movements.
At a recent meeting in Brunei, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
joined nine other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations in identifying HIV/Aids as a priority problem for Asean.
The leaders rightly agreed to put the accent on education as the
hundreds of thousands of people on the move around the region
must know the risks they face, and the dangers they may carry.
With porous borders all around the country, Thailand cannot be
slow to translate this into practice. As memories fade fast, and
economic problems continue to push people to the brink, the
government must renew public information campaigns for Thais
throughout the country and migrants on borders, and sustain them
on a long term basis.