It has been close to thirty years since the first cases of HIV in Thailand were reported. Prior to 1984 HIV was considered to be a mystery virus that infected thousands in Africa and in the West but somehow its spread had bypassed Asia, sadly today we know that is not the case.
Since the early 1990’s over 800,000 Thai people have died from Aids related illnesses and in 2012 it was estimated that 450,000 people were living with HIV in Thailand, a country that has been internationally acclaimed as a global leader on HIV.
By taking major steps to promote awareness of safe sexual practices in the early 1990’s the kingdom became a role model for the region and the world in confronting Aids. New HIV infections fell dramatically in Thailand from more than 140,000 per year in 1990 to just 9,000 in 2012. Part of the credit for this has to go to the chairman and founder of the Population and Community Development Association, who took action, when most countries in Asia were in denial.
Established in 1974 to promote family planning, the PDA is heading the local organizing committee of this year’s 11th International Congress on Aids in Asia and the Pacific, or ICAAP11. It is the second ICAAP to be held in Thailand, the first was during the height of the epidemic in 1995. And it is with a sense of pride that Bangkok welcomes almost 4,000 delegates to the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre from today until Friday.
This year’s ICCAAp theme is “Reaching Triple Zero” – Investing in Innovation. Triple Zero refers to the vision of getting to zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero Aids-related deaths, as launched by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS)2011.
Asia and the Pacific is at a pivotal juncture in making this vision a reality. The ICCAPP in Thailand, therefore, comes at a crucial time. The region has made important progress towards reaching global Aids targets, but progress is too slow. New HIV infections have seen a reduction of 26% since 2001, however in the last five years the number of new infections has remained largely unchanged.
The region has significantly increased domestic financing for Aids. Thailand funds 85% of its Aids response from national resources, but increased funding, both domestically and internationally remains critical, and needs to be focused on the key population who are at the highest risk of contracting HIV, those who inject drugs, homosexuals, the transgender population and male and female prostitutes. Currently only 8% of overall Aids spending in Asia-Pacific is for HIV prevention among people at a higher risk.
The epidemic still outpaces the response, with only half of those eligible for antiretroviral treatment receiving it.
Realizing the Triple Zero vision is possible but it will require strong political leadership, the full involvement of those living with HIV, the enhancement of HIV prevention efforts with focus on those at the highest risk of contracting the disease, the expansion of HIV counseling, antiretroviral treatment and community based HIV testing, continued efforts to procure affordable medicines and the advancement of human rights and gender equality through the removal of laws, policies and practices that fuel stigma and discrimination and violate the rights and hamper the Aids response.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in extending an invitation to ICAAPP11 said earlier this year “ In order to ensure continued success in responding to the Aids challenge, stronger communication from leaders in every relevant sector are needed. We also need to advance gender equality and fully recognize that having good health is a fundamental right”.
The ICAAP is an excellent stage to push forward discussions and strategizing for the future of the Aids response in Asia and the Pacific.
With the International Aids Conference scheduled to take place in Melbourne, Australia in July, Asia and the Pacific, especially in Thailand is under the spotlight.
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