HIV infections fall in Thailand but rise among young gay men and other at-risk groups
BANGKOK, 25 August 2014 – Thailand is facing a new rise in HIV cases as well as in sexually transmitted infections (STI) in certain population groups. Around 70 per cent of new STI cases are occurring among young people aged 15-24, particularly among men who have sex with men, young people involved in sex work and those who inject drugs, according to a new study released today by UNICEF Thailand.
The study – “Situational Analysis of Young People at High Risk of HIV Exposure in Thailand” – collected data from some 2,000 young people, including men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders, females who exchange sex for money, migrant workers and people who inject drugs in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Ubon Ratchathani provinces. Conducted by Thammasat University with UNICEF support, the study used focus groups and face-to-face interviews to identify and better understand specific risk behaviors and reviewed and proposed policy and programmatic responses for particular at-risk groups.
“A lack of life skills to control risky situations, together with the use of alcohol and drugs, often puts young people at higher risk of getting HIV and other STIs,” said Robert Gass, Chief of HIV for UNICEF Thailand. “In addition, social media, online dating websites and mobile application make it much easier for young people to meet others in order to engage in casual sex.”
The study cited national data which showed that around 41 per cent of new HIV infections in Thailand are among men who have sex with men. It also collected evidence that showed young MSMs are engaging in sex at an early age, often earlier than their heterosexual peers.
Pongthorn Chanlearn, Executive Director of Mplus Foundation, a non-governmental organization working to promote sexual health among MSMs and transgenders in Chiang Mai Province, noted that while many young people know that using condoms to protect themselves is important, they are often either too shy to purchase them or fail to use them when engaging in sex.
Among venue-based female sex workers in Thailand, HIV prevalence decreased from 2.8 per cent in 2008 to 1.8 per cent in 2011. However, the study pointed out that sex workers are more likely to use condoms with clients than with their regular partners.
In addition, many young women who engage in sex for money on an occasional basis, often find negotiating condom use more difficult. If the person engaging in sex work becomes infected, the risk of transmission to regular partners is subsequently increased. In Thailand today, approximately one-third of new infections are occurring in partners of individuals at high risk of HIV infection.
The study found that migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in terms of lacking knowledge about HIV and STI prevention. Migrant workers also often find it difficult to access free services and essential HIV prevention information due to language and financial barriers.
A common reflection among all groups of young people involved in the study was their negative experiences in public hospitals. Many of them described healthcare experiences that lacked confidentiality and friendliness, and where health care workers stigmatized their behavior. This often discouraged young people from accessing essential HIV prevention interventions through public healthcare services.
“It has become clear from the study that strong social support is very important as a protective factor for young people,” UNICEF's Gass said. “Young people who have close relationships or family support are less likely to engage in higher risk behavior than those without.".
UNICEF believes that Thailand urgently needs more effective protection measures and appropriate testing and treatment programmes for young people in order to curb rising infection rates for HIV and STI. These programs, however, will need to be designed at the community level, with the involvement of young people themselves, so that they meet their specific needs.
“Among several recommendations from the study, we are calling for the age of consent for HIV testing and counseling to be reduced from the current age of 18 years," Gass said. "If a young person feels that they have engaged in an activity that puts them at risk of HIV, they should be entitled to have a test without needing parental consent."
You can download full report here
Watch video interviews with young at-risk people http://bit.ly/VNmJkC
For more information, please contact:
Nattha Keenapan, UNICEF Thailand, 02 356 9478 or 086 616 7555 or firstname.lastname@example.org