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New Rise in HIV/AIDS Cases Among Young in Thailand

FILE - Samruei, a 35 year-old terminally ill Thai woman rests with her cat at a hospice for those dying of AIDS at a Buddhist temple Wat Prabat Nampu in Lop Buri.

FILE - Samruei, a 35 year-old terminally ill Thai woman rests with her cat at a hospice for those dying of AIDS at a Buddhist temple Wat Prabat Nampu in Lop Buri.

Thailand's young people are facing a new rise in HIV infections - the virus that causes AIDS. Researchers say they are finding it tougher to reach at-risk populations with messages about safer sex.

In a report released Monday, UNICEF says 70 percent of all sexually transmitted HIV infection cases in Thailand are occurring among people between the ages of 15 and 24.

The report says despite a gradual drop in the overall prevalence of HIV in the country during the past two decades, new infections are now rising -- especially among young people involved in the sex trade, injecting drugs and young men having unprotected sex with men.

Health activists in Thailand note that one of the current challenges in HIV prevention is reaching those engaging in higher-risk behavior.

The HIV/AIDS chief in Thailand for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), Robert Gass, explains that 10 to 15 years ago it was relatively easy to conduct awareness campaigns, such as discussions in gay bars about the importance of condoms.

“With the advent of social media and a variety of different ways for connecting many people don't ever have to go to a public place to meet other people to engage in sexual activity. They can do things through their phone or through the computer and they can meet up in that particular way. There are even applications that basically show where young men who engage in sex with other men where other people of similar persuasion are. And, so, they're able to find these people through applications on their iPhones,” said Gass.

Health workers say women employed at Thailand’s massage parlors and brothels tend to be protected because the importance of avoiding HIV transmission is better understood and safeguards are practiced.

However, the study has found that non-Thai female sex workers in Thailand often lack access to free health services and essential information on how to prevent HIV.

Gass added that another group of young women is also more vulnerable.

“What we're finding that is more worrisome and more dangerous tend to be those who are engaging in transactional sex, but in a more informal setting. So those who are meeting their clients on street corners or in bars and many of these will be university students or young girls who really don't have the life skills and negotiating ability to ensure that the partners that they spend time with are using condoms,” said Gass.

The study, supported by UNICEF, collected data from nearly 2,000 young people in Thailand who are members of groups deemed to have a higher risk of HIV exposure.

About 500,000 people are estimated to be living with the HIV virus in the kingdom. During the height of the epidemic AIDS was the top killer in the country, but now it is number five, responsible for four percent of all deaths in Thailand.

At the peak of the AIDS crisis in Thailand, HIV infected more than 100,000 young men and drug users before moving into the general population through commercial sex encounters.

Battling HIV and AIDS remains a huge challenge for some of Thailand’s neighbors, especially Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, and Vietnam.