Indonesia's Insulation From HIV/AIDS Wears Thin

The cultural and religious norms that have spared Indonesia from an HIV/AIDS epidemic may be the same factors that hinder prevention efforts in the country, experts warn. Indonesia shares the same ingredients that sparked an HIV/AIDS epidemic in neighboring Thailand -- a serious IV drug abuse problem, a booming sex industry, high STD rates, a large mobile labor pool, and a local reluctance to using condoms.

Despite this, Indonesia's highest estimate for HIV infections is 130,000 with only 3,614 actual reported cases as of March 31 of this year, compared to Thailand's 670,000 cases. But part of the discrepancy may be due to underreporting. "It's a totally passive reporting system," said Stephen Wignall, Indonesia director for Family Health International, which has been working with the Indonesian government to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Last May, the government announced a comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy, including setting the goal of 100 percent condom use among high-risk groups, according to UNAIDS. But getting the message across poses problems. A safe sex advertisement depicting men visiting a brothel was pulled from Indonesian television stations last September because Muslim groups felt it was promoting promiscuity and adultery.

The incident has raised serious questions about whether Islam, which may have helped Indonesia avoid an HIV/AIDS epidemic so far, will hinder the more crucial need for a safe sex campaign.

For his part, Tarmizi Taher, a former Indonesian Minister of Religion, is calling for the country's two major Muslim organizations to initiate dialogue about the need for condoms and clean needle use. But he acknowledges, "you have to use the right sentences to persuade people." "We call it an emergency, because under Islamic law if there is an emergency you can change the rules," said Taher.

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