Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH-ASIA: Talking Sex To Save Young Lives

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK , Oct 25 2005 (IPS) - Talking sex in predominantly Muslim Malaysia is not for the faint-hearted. More so if you dare do it in the full gaze of the public eye and on television week in and week out.

Yet, that is what Malaysian women Rafidah Abdullah and Kartini Ariffin have been doing in an endeavour that is a mix of rebellion, education and plain saving young lives from HIV.

These women, in their twenties, are part of a team that have appeared weekly on an infotainment programme, for the past five years, stirring up debate and raising awareness about issues that matter to the young.

Safe sex is very much part of this picture, especially the sexually transmitted killer disease, HIV/AIDS.

”Peer to peer programmes (on safe sex and HIV) work much better, because young people see it not as adults talking down at them,” says Rafidah, who first learnt of the pandemic at an exhibition in her school in Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s. She was 11 years old at that time.

But AIDS, which began its deadly march through South-east Asia in the 1980s, first affecting Thailand in the thousands, can no more be limited to the sterile confines of an exhibition hall in a secondary school.

And the work of the young Malaysian women indicates the focus the battle against this global killer is taking-involving young people, especially because the virus is preying on youth, say AIDS activists.

”The face of HIV/AIDS in East Asia and the Pacific is becoming younger. Not only are children dying, their lives are being damaged in so many ways,” says Anupama Rao Singh, Asia-Pacific regional director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

”Children have been ignored, despite bearing the brunt of HIV,” she added during the launch of a new global campaign by UNICEF and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) that calls on ”children to be put at the centre of the AIDS agenda.”

The current HIV story in Thailand is one reason for such concern, given that until recently this country was held up as a model to emulate in the battle against AIDS due to its pioneering and far-reaching public health drives to contain the killer disease.

”We are seeing an upturn of incidents of HIV/AIDS among young children,” says Jon Ungphakorn, a member of Thailand’s Senate who has been at the forefront in the anti-AIDS drive here since the early 1990s. ”Complacency has set in Thailand.”

Among his remedies to help the vulnerable children are ”good quality sex education and not moralistic ones” and policies that offer special treatment to children in the area of prevention, care and support. ”Children have never been given the priority,” he revealed.

”Young injecting drug users in Thailand are still contracting the virus in high numbers and only 20-30 percent of sexually active young Thai people regularly use condoms,” states a report, ‘East Asia: Children and HIV/AIDS,’ jointly released by UNICEF and UNAIDS here on Tuesday.

According to the report, Thailand sees 28,000 new infections a year with 50-60 percent of them involving children and young people under 24. It adds that 70 percent of the young people now living with HIV/AIDS in the country are girls and women between the ages 15 and 24.

By 2004,120,700 children were living with HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region out of an estimated 8.2 million adults and children infected with the virus. But what worries the U.N. agencies is that over a third of those cases-46,900- were young people who were newly infected in 2004.

The annual death toll from AIDS of children under 15 years is as troubling. In 2004, there were 9,100 children who died in the East Asia and Pacific region, with South Asia accounting for 30,300 of the deaths. This was against a global total of 510,000 deaths among children from AIDS in that year.

”Children under 15 in South and East Asia are the largest group of children living with AIDS and dying from the disease outside of sub-Saharan Africa,” states another U.N. report, ”Children – The missing face of AIDS.’

Besides Thailand, countries in East Asia where children are vulnerable include China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos.

And in most of these countries, children have limited knowledge of how the virus is transmitted and what they can do for protection, states UNICEF. ”In a survey of students in rural China, over half of the students believed that they could prevent HIV by exercising.”

The concern about children being hit by AIDS due to risky sexual behaviour follows the two other ways the killer virus has been dramatically affecting their lives. Children first entered the picture as AIDS orphans and then as babies struck by the virus as a result of mother-to-child transmission.

Nearly 1.5 million children have lost one or both parents due to AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, states the U.N. agencies, and close to 34,500 children needed anti-AIDS drugs as a result of being infected by their mothers.

To avoid more deaths, the U.N. agencies know that the region’s young people cannot be marginalised, nor can they be kept in the dark from the ”missing information and skills they need.”

UNICEF’s Singh, for one, sees no alternative to the pace set by youthful personalities like Rafidah, to place young people centre-stage in this drama of survival.

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