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Mr. Condom' Takes On an Old Foe
  Los Angeles Times
August 1, 2004
Thomas H. Maugh II
Thai Sen. Mechai Viravaidya, who headed Thailand's aggressive condom promotion campaign, is back in public life following a three-year retirement. Mechai's condom campaign is credited with sharply reducing HIV among sex workers. The government also started producing AIDS drugs and stepped up efforts to prevent vertical transmission. As a result, new infections plummeted from 143,000 in 1991 to 19,000 in 2003.
But indifference and ignorance may now eclipse that achievement. "The new generation hasn't heard much about HIV," said Mechai, 63, who earned the nickname "Mr. Condom." "They think it is gone… I thought I had done my job and I became an ordinary citizen, but nobody continued the momentum as strong as I had hoped." Government HIV/AIDS spending fell from $82 million in 1997 to $25 million last year.
Now Thailand's epidemic has matured, spreading to more diverse groups and making detection and prevention more difficult, according to a recent UN Development Program (UNDP) report. Among its finding:
*Just 20 percent of sexually active Thai youths are using condoms consistently, and half of new infections occur among young men and their wives or girlfriends, the report said.
*Only 15 percent of gay men use condoms consistently, and up to 17 percent of men who have sex with men are HIV-positive. In the mid-1990s, 4 percent were infected.
*HIV prevalence has shot up among IV drug users, from 30 percent in 1994 to 50 percent.
Treatment and methadone access are limited for IV drug users, and there are no needle-exchange programs. The government's recent drug crackdown is making addicts reluctant to seek treatment, said Paisan Suwannawong of the Thai Drug Users Network. The crackdown, echoes UNDP's report, "could be priming an ideal climate for a more extensive spread of the virus."
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