| Alisa Tang |
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Bare-chested male models strutted through the glitzy ballroom in Bangkok to the beat of house music while dozens of young gay men waited anxiously, working up the nerve to have a blood test.
The mostly female health team taking samples seemed incongruous next to the shirtless models circling the party, but the health workers’ presence at the TestBKK event, Thailand’s first mass HIV testing for gays, was sending a powerful message.
Over the past decade, HIV has spread rapidly among gay men, transgender people and male sex workers in Bangkok to reach epidemic levels, fuelled partly by greater use of illicit party drugs that make people less cautious about sex, experts said.
Once touted as an HIV success story, Thailand is now faced with infection rates in its gay population comparable to those in Africa’s AIDS hot spots.
Waking up to the scale of the problem, Thai authorities have embarked on a campaign to raise awareness about HIV and encourage testing among those most at risk: men who have sex with men and transgender people.
Frits van Griensven, an HIV researcher and adviser to the Thai Red Cross, said the initiative to focus on this key group was a positive step and long-awaited acknowledgement that Thailand – which successfully tackled HIV/AIDS in the 1990s – had failed to keep up with the spread of the virus into certain communities.
“For the government to take a stand in this epidemic and stand up for the rights of a minority population, I thought this was a big move,” van Griensven told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at his home in Bangkok.
He said it was only in the past year that Thai authorities had started to take this seriously and focus on HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) prevention in Thailand’s gay community.
Perhaps the biggest step in the campaign was in March last year with the release of guidelines on how to prevent the spread of HIV in men who have sex with men and transgender people. The guidelines came nearly 30 years after the first AIDS case was diagnosed in a gay Thai man.
“It’s a little late, but it’s better than never,” said van Griensven, welcoming moves to take testing to gay communities.
This month Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health began offering free drugs to all HIV patients to expand treatment and put them under the state’s monitoring system.
Data from 2013 estimates Thailand has 450,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, but only 353,000 have access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs.
Thailand’s large gay community, which officially numbers about 560,000, or 3 per cent of men aged 15 to 49, is now seen to be at risk of HIV. Van Griensven believes this figure underestimates the real number of gay men in the country, and 7.5 per cent, or about 1 million of the 66 million population, would be closer.
In 2003, while working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) unit in Thailand, van Griensven collected data showing 17.3 per cent of 1,121 Thai men in Bangkok bars, saunas and pick-up spots tested positive for HIV.
The situation has worsened since with studies showing about 30 per cent of all men who have sex with men in Bangkok are HIV positive. In 2013, gays, transgender people and male sex workers accounted for 41 per cent of all new HIV infections in Thailand.
Timothy Holtz, director of an HIV-focused programme run jointly by the CDC and Thai Ministry of Public Health, said the HIV epidemic among gay men “really is an emergency situation”.
“The only place you really see high rates like that are in the hardest hit areas among the generalised HIV epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa,” Holtz said in an interview at the CDC-run Silom Community Clinic at Mahidol University’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases.
“It’s not quite as high as it is in some really high-risk populations in southern Africa, such as in young women of child-bearing age in South Africa, but it’s still very alarming.”