Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya
BANGKOK, 2 July 2012 – Thailand has committed itself to an “AIDS Zero” focus in its continuing battle against the HIV/AIDS virus: zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and an end to stigma and discrimination against people living with or affected by HIV by the end of 2016.
The AIDS Zero goals were announced at the launch of the National AIDS Strategy 2012-2016 last month in Bangkok at an event that brought together hundreds of people from government, civil society and the private sector.
The large turnout for the strategy’s launch was a clear indication of the continued importance placed on controlling HIV/AIDS and dealing with problems associated with it in Thailand, which reported its first AIDS case in 1984. Over the past two decades, well-funded and comprehensive prevention programmes have greatly limited the spread of the virus, while provision of ARV medicines has drastically reduced mortality rates among people living with HIV.
Some 43,000 new HIV infections are projected in Thailand over the next five years. About 60 per cent of the new infections are expected to be among men having sex with men, commercial sex workers and their clients, and injecting drug users, while around 30 per cent are projected between couples.
Dr. Petchsri Sirinirund, Director of the National AIDS Management Centre, said that “with such challenging goals there is a need for the real participation of all involved, while the strategy itself has to be clear and effective in order to achieve the goals.”
Dr. Petchsri said the three AIDS Zero goals are interlinked, with the reduction of stigma and discrimination crucial to ensuring equal access to quality prevention and treatment programmes. Once this is achieved, it should lead to the other two zeros – zero new HIV infections and zero AIDS-related deaths.
“When the number of new infections is greatly reduced, the country can provide prevention services for all affected populations,” Dr. Petchsri said.
Participants at the launch included senior policy makers, government officials from both the central and provincial levels, representatives of HIV/AIDS networks, international organisations and the social and private sectors, as well as activists, media and members of such vulnerable groups such as men having sex with men, commercial sex workers, drug users and people living with HIV.
Five strategies will be used to achieve the AIDS Zero goals. The first strategy is expanding rights-based and gender sensitive prevention services for populations with high risk behavior. The second is ensuring the protective social and legal environment essential for HIV prevention and care. The third and fourth strategies are creating a sense of ownership among provincial and local authorities in preventing and solving AIDS-related issues, and providing new strategic information to inform and guide the national response at all levels. The final strategy is improving the effectiveness of the government’s existing HIV-related programmes and services.
“I am confident that Thailand will be able to achieve this goal eventually, just as we successfully eradicated such diseases as smallpox and the plague,” said Deputy Prime Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa, who is the chairperson of the National AIDS Committee.
UNICEF provided financial and technical support for the development of the National AIDS Strategy’s focus on children with HIV, vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and women.
“Thailand is one of the first pilot countries to adopt the AIDS Zero plan,” said Robert Gass, Chief of the UNICEF Thailand HIV/AIDS section. “It is challenging because it means reducing the number of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths close to zero, as well as reducing stigma and discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Yet it is also a comprehensive national plan and covers all issues related to HIV/AIDS, including the physical, psychological and social aspects.”
Gass said some parts of the plan will be easier to achieve than others. Reducing the number of new HIV infections, especially mother-to-child transmission, will be easier to achieve as the prevention rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is already over 95%. However, reducing stigma and discrimination will be a major challenge.
“Reducing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV is difficult because the general public still lacks information, knowledge and understanding about HIV/AIDS,” Gass said. “As a result of the stigma and negatives attitudes about HIV, people are reluctant to use prevention programmes or be tested for HIV, while those who already have the virus shun treatment services.”
Gass said clearer understanding about HIV and how it is transmitted will help lead to a more positive attitude about people living with HIV/AIDS. For example, the public needs to understand that HIV cannot be transmitted through social contact or activities such as touching, kissing, coughing, sharing toilet seats or swimming pools. He said the government also needs to expand services to populations at greater risk of HIV infection.
“Although HIV/AIDS is not curable it can be treated just like any other disease,” Gass said. “Children living with HIV/AIDS can, if they receive the proper care and treatment, grow up and live a normal life like other children. These children have the right to the love, care and support of both their families and their communities. They also have the right, just like other children, to receive an education and to be provided with opportunities that will allow them to develop to their full potential so that they can contribute fully to the future of their country.”