Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Thai 'Condom King' keeps up the fight

Mechai Viravaidya made a huge impactin Thailand with his humorous approach to promoting condom use andincreasing awareness of HIV, but complacency threatens his gains

REUTERS , Bangkok

Mechai Viravaidya, shown above, is known for introducing a successful program in Thailand to increase use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Armed with the shiny packets of rubber that made him famous years ago, Thailand's "Condom King" Mechai Viravaidya is taking aim at a new generation of Thais threatened by the deadly AIDS disease.

"Don't be shy, these are to protect yourselves," the 63-year-old veteran AIDS campaigner said as he doled out condoms to three young women in a swanky Bangkok department store.

"We have 700,000 Thais with AIDS and some of them are good looking men. Please give them to your friends."

Mechai, whose safe-sex gospel was hailed for helping to stop the rampant spread of the disease in Thailand a decade ago, now finds himself in the thick of a renewed fight against HIV/AIDS.

As Thailand gears up to host a week-long global AIDS conference starting on Sunday, a new generation of young Thais are flirting with danger, shunning condoms and raising fears that infection rates will climb again.

"In the last two or three years, we have fallen into a state of hibernation in terms of public education. A new generation hasn't heard much about HIV. They think it's gone," Mechai said in an interview at his Cabbages and Condoms restaurant.

Mechai became known in the 1970s as "Mr. Condom" for organizing a national population-control campaign almost singlehandedly.

He turned to AIDS after Thailand's first case emerged in the 1980s, when officials reckoned on 4 million infections by 2000 if nothing were done.

Using humor to break cultural taboos, Mechai dressed up in "condom" suits, handed them out at public events and joined police in a "Cops and Rubbers" campaign targeting commuters.

"Mechai" quickly became Thai slang for a condom.

"He was a clever speaker and people listened to what he had to say," recalled Sompong Chareonsuk, country program adviser for UNAIDS Thailand.

True to form, Mechai and his supporters will be handing out thousands of free condoms -- one size for Thais and a larger "international" size for visitors, he says -- to delegates at the airport, on street corners and at highway toll booths.

the BIRDS AND the BEES

Born to a Thai father and Scottish mother, Mechai earned a degree from Melbourne University and worked briefly as an economist before setting up his Population and Community Development Association in 1974 to promote family planning.

His condom-festooned eatery in Bangkok is one of seven in Thailand plus four hotel resorts it owns. They generate about US$10 million annually to fund the association's activities and he plans to open similar venues in Australia and the US.

"We may start with `Birds and Bees' so we don't offend anyone in the US, and then move to `Cabbages and Condoms.'"

A member of the Thai senate, he has sometimes scolded prime ministers publicly for not doing enough about AIDS.

He recently cajoled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has faced criticism from activists, into chairing his first meeting of the national AIDS committee.

During a brief cabinet stint in 1991, Mechai promoted an anti-AIDS effort that included mandatory education advertisements every hour on TV and radio and free condoms for prostitutes.

Behavior patterns changed dramatically, with up to 98 percent of Thai men, previously averse to condoms, now using them in Bangkok's notorious brothels, up from 15 percent before the efforts to promote safe sex began.

At a time when Asia threatens to become the next AIDS epicenter after southern Africa, Thailand is a rare success story with infections down to 20,000 annually from 140,000 in 1991.

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