Gay men remain largely ignored despite increasing infections
HANOI, Vietnam Men who have sex with men in Asia are highly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, but remain largely ignored despite increasing infections in the region, a report said.
Many Asian countries have been forced to address HIV/AIDS in high-risk groups such as female sex workers and injecting drug users, but men who have sex with men, known as MSM, have typically been left out because many men are married and do not identify themselves as gay or bisexual.
This, along with a lack of initiative by governments, has helped fuel a rising threat. Studies found infection rates as high as 28 percent among MSM in Bangkok, Thailand; 14 percent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and 16 percent in Andhra Pradesh, India; according to the report released Aug. 11 by Bangkok-based TREAT Asia, a nonprofit program of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
“It’s so diverse that we need to stop just throwing up our hands and not doing anything,” said Paul Causey, an HIV/AIDS consultant in Bangkok who worked on the analysis. “We need to start thinking of what we can do right away.”
The survey, one of the most comprehensive reports ever published on MSM in Asia, is a compilation of the few studies that have been conducted, combined with interviews from researchers and aid workers in 19 countries.
Unlike gay communities in Western countries that were hit hard by HIV/AIDS early in the epidemic and became a loud voice for change, MSM in Asia are often not unified, are hidden from society or persecuted by police. Sex between men is illegal in 11 of the countries examined.
Male-to-male sex is also common among certain professions in South Asia. For example, 49 percent of truck drivers surveyed in Lahore, Pakistan, reported having sex with other men, along with 22 percent of rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh. Access to information and condoms is also limited, with prevention programs available to only 2 percent of MSM in 16 Asia-Pacific countries.
Many MSM have multiple partners, do not use condoms and have high rates of sexually transmitted diseases all key factors in rising infection rates. Because so many MSM in Asia also have sex with women, they could help spread the disease to more people.
“MSM in Asia need not suffer the same fate as many gay men in the West,” Kevin Frost, director of TREAT Asia, said in a statement. “We’ve paid for that lesson with too many lives.”
An estimated 8.3 million people were living with the virus last year in the Asia-Pacific, home to the highest number of HIV/AIDS infections after sub-Saharan Africa.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 18, 2006.