Asleep at the Wheel

The world has been living with the HIV/AIDS epidemic for some thirty years, and prevention methods have been scientifically proven and disseminated to the public for nearly as long. Yet, there are, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) High Level Commission on HIV Prevention, at least 7,000 new HIV infections every day -- an alarming number that indicates HIV/AIDS awareness is at an unacceptable level of neglect by governments, civil society, and the private sector. There was a strong worldwide effort towards HIV prevention when the disease began spreading rapidly throughout the developing world in the early 1990s but, more recently, a disproportionate amount of funding has been directed towards treatment, rather than prevention. Obviously, prevention is the most effective method in slowing down the spread of this terrible disease, but decision-makers still view HIV prevention as a health problem, not a societal one.
In my home country of Thailand, there was immediate denial by the Government when the disease first appeared in the 1980s because they feared that it would be detrimental to the tourism industry. Realizing that this crisis required urgent action, we took the "no" from the Government as a question, and we then approached the Thai military, which was more open-minded. They had a strong interest in making sure their soldier, sailor, and marine recruits were not being infected with HIV, so they allowed us to conduct a public awareness campaign on two hundred of their radio stations and two of their television stations.
Mr. Anand Panyarachun was appointed Prime Minister in 1991, and he was much more serious than his predecessors about tackling the rapidly spreading virus. I was happy to be a member of his cabinet. He adopted policies of promoting safer sex, public awareness and, most importantly, reaching out to every segment of Thai society to educate people on the dangers of HIV/AIDS. By working with communities that were seen as vulnerable -- including drug users, sex workers, and sexually active teenagers -- and by making them part of the solution, it was possible to change their behaviour in order to slow the rate of HIV infection. According to a 2005 study by the World Bank, an estimated 7,700,000 lives were saved and, according to UNAIDS, there was a 90 per cent decline in new infections due to these unique and innovative approaches. Unfortunately, during the last decade of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, the focus shifted almost entirely towards treatment, and we fell "asleep at the wheel" with regard to public awareness. Due to this tragic error in public policy, we have seen an increase in the rate of Thai teenagers infected with the HIV virus. Thailand is not the only country to suffer from a lapse in prevention, and everyone must strive to reinvigorate education and awareness on HIV/AIDS.
If you look at a long-established, global company with an internationally known brand name, such as Coca-Cola, you may question why they devote so much time and energy towards advertising and marketing. It is because human nature shows us that people tend to have short-lived memories. The private sector understands this trait, and continuously provides the public with information on a frequent basis to market their products. However, the Government and the civil society sector have become overly confident in people's attention spans, mistakenly believing that the public is already well educated on HIV prevention. To address the need for behavioural change towards people engaging in unprotected sex and illicit drug use, it is imperative that policy and funding be steered towards the education of children. Youth are the strongest agents of change in their local communities, and any policy not tailored towards the needs of communities is destined to fail. Promoting safe sex in schools and among youth groups is essential to removing the stigma of using condoms throughout the whole community. In the twenty-first century, because of modern communications and the Internet, children are privy to topics much more mature in nature than in previous generations; therefore, there is no reason to be shy about teaching them about the birds and the bees. In fact, they have probably already learned about it online long before an adult would even consider talking to them about it. By strongly focusing on the education of youth, we can help prevent HIV for the next generation.