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Young Thais at greatest risk of HIV, Unicef study finds

Publication Date : 27-08-2014


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 in the sex trade and those who inject drugs, according to a study by Unicef Thailand released on Monday.

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, young women who engage in sex for money, migrant workers and people who inject drugs in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Ubon Ratchathani provinces.

The study used focus groups and face-to-face interviews to identify and understand specific risk behaviours and proposed policy and programme 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 applications make it much easier for young people to meet and engage in casual sex."

The study cited national data, which showed 41 per cent of new HIV infections in Thailand are among gay men. It also collected evidence that showed young MSMs are engaging in sex at an early age, often earlier than their heterosexual peers.

Chiang Mai-based Mplus Foundation executive director Pongthorn Chanlearn noted that while many young people know that using condoms for self-protection 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 regular partners.

Chance of transmission increased

In addition, many young women who engage in sex for money occasionally, often find negotiating condom use difficult. If the person engaging in sex work becomes infected, the risk of transmission to regular partners is subsequently increased.

In Thailand, about one-third of new infections are occurring in partners of individuals at high risk of HIV infection.

The study found migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in terms of lacking knowledge about prevention.

A common reflection among all groups of young people in the study was their negative experiences in public hospitals. Many described healthcare experiences that lacked confidentiality and friendliness, and where health workers stigmatised their behaviour.

Unicef believes Thailand urgently needs more effective protection measures and appropriate testing and treatment programmes for young people as to curb rising HIV and STI infection rates. These programs will need to be designed at the community level, with the involvement of young people, so that they meet their needs.


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