AIDS Condom Message Slipping in Thailand, Experts Warn

Thailand's highly visible anti-AIDS campaign of the 1990s slashed infection rates, but health workers are concerned HIV/AIDS is on the rise again because people are straying from the message of "always use a condom." With its huge sex industry, Thailand was one of the first countries to embrace the need for prevention campaigns. As a result, Thailand spent millions of dollars launching an unabashed publicity drive encouraging everyone, and particularly sex workers, to protect themselves.

But Koen Frederix of Doctors Without Borders said those efforts to discourage unprotected sex are now being neglected. "...The Government organized a campaign to achieve 100 percent condom use in sex workers, which was very effective. But we are seeing an increase in risky behavior and now sex workers are not using condoms any more," said Frederix.

A spokesperson for the health ministry's AIDS bureau said although it is believed that about 90 percent of sex workers use condoms all the time, a major concern is that just 30 percent of Thais ages 15-29 use condoms, according to studies. Officials also worry the declining fear of AIDS has caused many people to become overly trusting of their sex partners, or to mistakenly believe HIV-positive people can be identified by their appearance. "Most people use condoms for casual partners but not steady partners because they trust them, so... infections are spreading between steady partners," said Thai Red Cross researcher Rapeepun Jommaroeng.

Disease Control Department official Sombat Thanprasertsuk, director of Thailand's Bureau for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Sexually Transmitted Illnesses, admitted condom use is a problem the government is anxious to solve. In addition to providing condoms to sex workers free of charge, "we are trying to search for a new innovative approach like condom vending machines," said Sombat.

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