Thursday, August 21, 2003

WHO lauds Myanmar's progress in promoting condom use

VIENTIANE, Laos — Myanmar, a conservative country that wouldn't even acknowledge having prostitution just two years ago, has made great strides in promoting condom use to fight the spread of AIDS, said World Health Organization officials.

"This is an amazing shift in Myanmar's policy," WHO spokeswoman Mangai Balasegaram said Thursday at the end of a regional conference organized by the U.N. organization to promote condom use.

"Only three weeks ago the word 'condom' was used for the first time in the national press, in an article from the New Light of Myanmar," she said referring to one of the country's state-owned newspapers.

At the conference, Myanmar health official Dr. Tun Myint said his government was now distributing condoms through a national AIDS program funded by a US$21 million Trust Fund for HIV-AIDS from the United Nations.

The conference, organized to promote the strategy of "100 percent" condom use in the sex industry, was attended by representatives of WHO's Western Pacific region countries: Cambodia, China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.

Myanmar and Thailand — which pioneered the "100 percent" strategy in 1991-92 — attended as observers. The 100 percent strategy seeks to ensure that condoms are used in every sexual transaction between a sex worker and customer.

Tun Myint, assistant director of AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Disease Control in Myanmar's Department of Health, said an estimated average of 20 to 50 female sex workers work in each of Myanmar's district capitals.

In late 2000, a "100 percent" condom use program was begun on a pilot basis in four district capitals, and Tun Myint said 60 district capitals are being targeted by the end of 2003.

The participation of a representative from Myanmar was a highlight of the four-day conference, said Balasegaram.

Equally encouraging was the presence of Myanmar Cabinet ministers at an international meeting on HIV transmission through drug use held in Yangon last week, she said.

Tun Myint said Myanmar had identified 45,968 people with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — by March 2003.

WHO estimates are significantly higher.

By the end of 2001, an estimated 180,000 to 400,000 individuals were living with HIV/AIDS, according to its Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections. "AIDS deaths will constitute a major, if not the major, cause of death in young adults during the coming decade."

WHO officials nevertheless view Myanmar's example positively.

"It is difficult to talk about sex in Asia, but quiet work is now breaking taboos," said Balasegaram.

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Created: November 29, 2003
Last modified: January 17, 2004
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