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HIV in Thailand and living with HIV

Thailand has made great progress in responding to the HIV and AIDS crisis especially in comparison with other Southeast Asian countries.

In 2018, at least 6,400 new HIV infections were recorded, according to UNAIDS. Avert, a digital platform that focuses on HIV and sexual health education, has revealed that Thailand has one of the highest HIV prevalences in the Asia Pacific region, with 9 percent of the region’s total population of people living with HIV were reported to be in the “Land of Smiles”.

However, these numbers actually show a decline in the HIV epidemic in Thailand thanks to campaigns in raising local HIV/AIDS awareness, which have been deemed quite effective in reducing the number of HIV infections.

For example, the campaigns that were raised by one of the most prominent HIV/AIDS activists, Mechai Viravaidya (aka “Mr. Condoms”, as people in Thailand nicknamed him), has been credited for effectively lessening new HIV infections by 90 percent from 1991 to 2012. [1]

Thailand’s healthcare system also covers those who are affected with HIV, with antiretroviral treatment  free of charge for Thai citizens. In addition, foreigners or non-Thai residents who are living with HIV can also have access to free HIV medicine if they have work permits.

In 2018, Thailand became the only country in Southeast Asia that introduced pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medicine that can prevent HIV infection if taken as prescribed, making it available to people who are at a risk of getting HIV infection.

In fact, people who are living with HIV in neighboring countries, such as those in Indonesia, would either travel to Thailand to purchase PrEP or have them delivered due to the fact that this medicine is not yet available in their country.

Foreigners living with HIV in Thailand

In Thailand, access to free healthcare and medicine for people living with HIV are not only available for Thai people but also for non-Thais who work in the country.

Anwar, who is in his late 50s, is a Malaysian who has lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for several years. He said that he was pleased that, unlike in his own country, Thailand takes care of the entire population including those who are living with HIV. Most importantly, this also includes foreigners who work in Thailand.

Anwar stated that having a work permit in Thailand guarantees foreigners to experience the universal healthcare program that also includes free medication for HIV positive people. In addition, people who are being treated with any illnesses related to HIV will also be covered.

While private insurance firms in Thailand still, according to Anwar, refuse to cover the healthcare expenses of people who are living with HIV, the social security system allows foreigners to continue living and working without having to fear for their well-being.

“I lost my job one time and I thought I no longer have access to the healthcare system. Later I found out that my social security card can still be used up to 6 months after I have been let go from a job,” he said, smiling.

“And if you do not get a job within 6 months, you can still pay around THB420-THB720 per month for social security as long as you already have it.”

The healthcare providers here are very proactive in ensuring that their patients receive the best treatment, said Anwar, adding that he never felt any sort of discrimination from the healthcare providers.

While free antiretroviral medicine for people who are living with HIV are only free for Thai people and foreigners with work permits, foreigners who are only visiting Thailand can still easily access HIV medicine in Thailand.

“I never have a problem getting my medicines here,” said Rafael, who visited Thailand a couple of times.

Ending the stigma

While it is true that Thailand has made great progress in responding to the HIV epidemic, there are still challenges that the country has to face.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemic is the stigma that comes with the virus.

Kritthanan Ditthabanjong, the leader of the Thai Network of Youth Living with HIV, said that despite the campaigns that have been promoted to end the stigma, there were still incidents that people who are living HIV have to face.

“In many places, people who are living with HIV are still unable to get a job because companies still apply pre-employment blood tests,” said Kritthanan.

Kritthanan, who has been living with HIV for 8 years, said that social media is one of the tools that can effectively raise the awareness toward HIV and AIDS, including ending the stigma by building confidence in people who are living with HIV.

“We also have other activities to raise HIV awareness such as camps and counseling for children who are living with HIV,” said Kritthanan, who added that he also wished that PrEP could also be free of charge in the future.

Rapee Lertpongpiroon, MD., the founder of HUGSA Medical, said that in his 10 years of experience treating people who are living with HIV, he has seen major changes in attitudes toward the infection.

“Thais now seem to have a better understanding about HIV and AIDS. It looks like the campaigns have been effective,” he said.

While he applauded the Thai government for their policies that ensure people who are living with HIV receive affordable healthcare, Rapee insisted that it is also necessary to bring empathy toward the efforts of responding to the HIV pandemic.

“Funding is not more important than empathy,” he said. “That’s what makes the difference in the end.”

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The Love Foundation campaigns for sexual health awareness and understanding. We believe that everyone is equally valuable and are able to create change in the fight against HIV stigma, regardless of HIV status.