Sunday, March 13, 2011

Devising Fresh Dialogue, HIV in Thailand

Written By: Lauren Nolan

Edited By: Dave Talmage

Education is the social vaccine in the fight to end the spread of new HIV infections. The World Bank, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), AVERT, and the Peace Corps, alongside numerous other organizations, have focused their attention on Thailand in efforts to start dialogue and spread awareness.

Thailand recognized the first case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1984. However, it was not until nearly a decade later, in 1991, when Anand Panyarachun came to power as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, that HIV and AIDS were placed on the political agenda, according to AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity.

Panyarachun moved the AIDS control program from the Ministry of Public Health to the Office of the Prime Minister, increasing the programs influence and the publics awareness of ways to prevent HIV and AIDS. In 2003 Thailand saw record low numbers of new cases of HIV totaling 19,000.

Loosing momentum: Politics are to blame

There was optimism concerning Thailand’s battle to achieve zero AIDS-related death and zero new HIV infections; two principles defined in UNAIDS vision. Then, in the late 1990s, financial crisis struck Asia, resulting in significant budget cuts for AIDS prevention and control programs. Further compromising the progress, political turmoil took focus from public services and education to “a radical switch to survival mode for the government,” as Patrick Winn, foreign correspondent for Global Post and resident of Bangkok, describes the situation.

“The loss of momentum, in all areas, is mostly because of politics,” said David Barron, a Peace Corps volunteer who trains teachers in rural Thailand. Barron is stationed in the province of Ubon Ratchathani, which is located 650 km (404 mi.) east of Bangkok.

“The recent political situations have been very disruptive,” said Barron. “I’m a firm believer that education can provide a social vaccine for HIV, and the teachers I work with are also very concerned with the lack of sex education in high schools.” He adds, “Discussions on HIV and sex are more than political, they’re cultural issues. Those topics just aren’t openly discussed, especially in a rural setting.”

In Bangkok, “(HIV) is an open topic, there isn’t much stigma associated with condoms and HIV literature and discussion,” said Winn.

On the other hand, in rural areas of Thailand, the provinces where Barron and Root are stationed have a much more conservative take on HIV literature and dialogue.

An education gap

“Health just isn’t a factor taught in rural Thailand. Education varies by where you live,” said Barron. “I’ve been living in Thailand for just over one year, and in the schools I work in I have seen nothing at all concerning HIV education.”

While the school systems in Barron’s province have not made any strides towards HIV education for prevention, Anita Root, another volunteer for the Peace Corps, has been more fortunate in her efforts towards the social vaccine, education.

Root is stationed in the province of Nakhon Pahnom, which is 724 km (450 mi.) northeast of Bangkok and 370 km (230 mi.) north of Ubon Ratchathani. She did not come to Thailand to teach or interact with children.

“To be honest, kids kind of freak me out,” said Root. “I didn’t think I would become involved with education. Then this opportunity to help (the kids) learn and start a dialogue came up, and I couldn’t pass.”

While working in a government office in her village Root was approached and asked to develop an HIV/AIDS Life Skills Camp for the youth of her village. In 2009 young people, ages 15-24, accounted for 40 percent of all new HIV infections in Thailand, according to UNAIDS.

The main goals of the camp are to spread awareness of HIV, dispel myths surrounding the disease and to ignite dialogue and spark curiosity within the village. Root estimates 70 children, ages 13-18, will attend this camp being held in April 2011.

“It’s not just the students (who lack health education),” said Root. “A teacher I work with, she is 47 years old, and I have had to correct her multiple times regarding myths surrounding HIV and AIDS. One woman I work with in the government office does not understand that HIV and AIDS are different. It’s one thing when kinds are under- or misinformed, but its even more troubling to hear from adults with these misconceptions.”

Hope for the future

There is hope, even with the plethora of myths, misinformation and misunderstandings about HIV and AIDS. Root says she expects the camp to function as a good starting point in revamping HIV and AIDS awareness and dialogue in Thailand.

“I’d like for these kids to take away (from their experience at the camp) not just information, but a deeper understanding of feelings of empathy and seeing HIV, not just as a disease, but how it is taken on as a lifestyle,” said Root.

Photo courtesy of Anita Root

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