Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Anti-HIV efforts require revamping, experts say

YOUNG PEOPLE Participants in an annual HIV/AIDS conference in Taipei report that teenagers and young adults are ignorant about a disease that could kill them

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

A woman looks at red ribbons, an international symbol of HIV/AIDS, at the Grand Hotel during the 7th Taipei Conference on HIV/AIDS, which ended yesterday.

PHOTO: CNA

The rate of HIV infection among young people is climbing and the government's efforts to fight the disease need to be redesigned to reflect realities in today's society, experts said yesterday.

The 7th Taipei Conference on HIV/AIDS ended yesterday. Health professionals at the conference said that limited condom use and poor understanding of AIDS have sped up HIV's spread among the young.

Official figures show that as of last month, 1152 young people (defined as people between the ages of 15 and 24) have been diagnosed as HIV-positive since reporting began. However, officials stress that the reporting system is flawed, and that the actual figure is probably higher.

"More and more young people are having sex but less than 50 percent of them use condoms," said Lai An-Chi (賴安琪), a section chief at the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) division for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STD).

According to Lai, it is disturbing that young people often think that AIDS prevention is irrelevant to them, and only use condoms for the sake of contraception -- not to prevent the spread of disease. "They think that men who have sex with other men are the only ones who get the disease. So they end up using contraceptives other than condoms," Lai said.

sex education

According to experts, the nation's system of sex education appears to be inadequate. "We know that hundreds of high school students have been infected with HIV. Yet when we ask high school students about HIV/AIDS, none of them are aware that students are sometimes infected with HIV," said Edwin Yen (晏涵文), a professor in the health education department at National Taiwan Normal University.

Though many young people are not fully aware of the risks of HIV/AIDS, people infected with HIV are stigmatized nonetheless. "Over and over again, we have had to tell kids that they will not be infected if they sit next to an HIV-positive classmate," said Yen.

The misunderstandings and secrecy that surround HIV/AIDS have caused more people to be infected, according to experts.

According to Lai, the number of students diagnosed with HIV increased by 85 percent in 1997, when drug cocktails were first offered at no cost.

"When the treatment became free, suddenly more students wanted to know if they were infected. Unfortunately, many were afraid to go to health bureaus for testing, even though their names were not required.

Instead, they went to blood donation centers," and, as a result, many cases of infection were probably never reported.

"Our biggest enemy is the stigma attached to AIDS, not AIDS itself," said Nicole Crepaz, a behavioral scientist from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many experts at the conference addressed the need to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, but questions about what role disclosure of HIV status should play in AIDS-prevention efforts remain unresolved.

right to privacy

"Under current law, there is a conflict between patients' right to privacy and public health concerns," Ellen Lin (林美倫), a lawyer, said in the conference's keynote speech.

"For AIDS patients, to tell or not to tell is a hard decision. They can choose to keep their secret and have peace and quiet for a few years. Or they can seek treatment and in turn confront social discrimination," Lin said.

Although the government, medical professionals and non-governmental groups have strived to stem the spread of the disease and to provide health care to people infected with HIV, a lack of coordination has undermined their efforts.

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