Sunday, August 24, 2008

AIDS in Asia

The article below appeared in a Singapore free newspaper about 3 weeks ago.

1 in 5 Asian Homosexuals Has HIV

UNITED NATIONS — HIV infection rates among gay men in many parts of Asia are as severe as those which devastated homosexual communities in the United States in the late ’80s, said top officials of the United Nations Aids agency UNAIDS.

Launching his agency’s 2008 report on the global Aids epidemic, Mr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, urged more action to prevent the spread of the disease among gay men who have unsafe sex. He also stressed the importance of working with affected communities.

Mr Piot said: “All over Asia there are now epidemics of HIV in men who have sex with men, at the same magnitude that we saw in this country 25 years ago. That is something that has been detected fairly recently. There is not enough action yet but we are now starting programs,” he added.

Paul De Lay, director of Evidence, Monitoring and Policy at UNAIDS, said the HIV epidemic among gay communities in Asia was not new, but that it had recently reached the levels seen in cities such as San Francisco at the end of the 1980s when HIV infections reached their peak.

He said it could be due to a number of factors, including less funding for programs that target men who have sex with men and the fact that there were new groups who were less aware of the risks of unprotected sex.

“Asia has recognized populations of men who have sex with men for quite some time,” he told AFP. “The epidemic in these populations started in the mid-1990s. What we see now is a resurgence.”

“There are countries where the percentage of people infected are similar to what we were seeing in San Francisco or in Berlin or in London where up to 15 to 20 percent of men who have sex with men are HIV positive,” he added.

The report meanwhile noted that unprotected sex between men was a “potentially significant but under-researched aspect of the HIV epidemics in Asia,” citing countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.

“Recent study data from several major cities in the region, from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, show increasing HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men,” the report said.

In China, unsafe sex between men could account for up to seven per cent of HIV infections, it noted.

De Lay said there were also high infection rates among gay populations in cities such as Chennai and Mumbai in India and in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

He added that these communities often faced homophobia from the wider population, as well as discrimination from health care providers, which discouraged them from seeking information and getting tested.

“Even without blatant national laws that criminalize homosexual behavior, you can still have a gradation of policies and practices that can be almost as bad,” he said.

De Lay pointed to a similar resurgence of HIV infections among gay populations in the US and western Europe, which he said showed the need for constant vigilance.

The report said higher risk unprotected sex among gay men in several countries in western Europe, such as Germany, appeared to be linked to the increasing numbers of new HIV diagnoses among that group.

“It’s disturbing because it’s this sense that we can never let our guard down as far as prevention, that the epidemic will come creeping back if there isn’t this constant attention being paid to it,” De Lay said. -AFP

I believe the same report appeared in quite a few other news publications as well.

But there was something that didn't seem quite right. Could you guess what it was?

Read the title again.

It wasn't mentioned anywhere in the article that 1 in 5 or 20% of gay Asian men is gay. It only said that up to 15 to 20% of gay men are HIV-positive.

I am not trying to nitpick here, but there is a difference. And a huge difference at that.

It's like a sale which says up to 20% discount, which could be only 5%, 10% or whatever amount below 20%, as compared to a sale of 20% discount, which means ALL items are 20% cheaper.

If someone were to read the title of the report only without reading further, he or she would have the wrong idea that one-fifth of gay men are HIV-positive.

I am not trying to underestimate readers intelligence, but stereotypes and discrimination abound. The human brain is programmed to categorise and pigeon-hole things neatly into little boxes. As such, reading the misleading title would likely lead readers to think that only gay men contract AIDS or that it is a predominantly a gay disease or straight people are less likely to contract the disease.

All of the above are not desirable or positive outcomes. It probably would have done some damage to the hard work and effort of HIV education programs to change public perception about the virus.

In my opinion, there are two concerns regarding such inappropriate headline:
1) it reinforces the misconception that it is a homosexual disease and only homosexuals get it. This would make other segments of society believe they are not at risk and thus may erroneously think that they do not need to take precautions like practicing safer sex

2) it paints a picture of doom and gloom for homosexuals, that one in five gays are likely to become infected. Being gay doesn't doom a person to a life of suffering and HIV. It is about being true to yourself and loving yourself for it. There is hope, optimism and happiness and those are not in the domain of heterosexuals only.

Actually, I had written in an email to the newspaper stating my concerns and the reasons, but it was not published. I have also sent it to Straits Times and it was also declined.

Just for readers information, the original headline reads "AIDS hitting Asian gays at high rates: UN".

So is it a case of deliberate anti-gay propaganda or just plain sensational reporting?


Cheryl said...

wow... so free to write to papers :P

Jaded_Jeremy said...

Good on you Derek! It is disappointing that the Singapore media is resorting to such blatant misleading title. Sheesh.

u-jean said...

hi derek,

i follow your blog and i wrote something in my blog that i would like you to read and maybe help to put it in your blog as well.

Thank you and sorry i'm using this as a dissemination channel.


Kitpan said...

Hi Derek,

Though I not totally agree with the news reports you posted, but in fact, as one of the volunteer for PT VCT (volunteer Counseling and Testing) for HIV, we have statistic show that out of the 800++ people (mostly gays) came for test, there are about 10% is positive . It's an alarming treat we must deal with, although the rate might be a bit overrated. Save ourselves and our love ones, always safe sex.