An estimated 70 per cent of new sexually transmitted infections cases are occurring among young people, especially among men who have sex with men, those involved in sex work and those who inject drugs in Thailand, where “social media, online dating websites and mobile application make it much easier for young people to meet others in order to engage in casual sex,” says a new United Nations report.
Compiled by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the new study – Situational Analysis of Young People at High Risk of HIV Exposure in Thailand – collected data from some 2,000 young people, including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, females who exchange sex for money, migrant workers and people who inject drugs in four provinces.
The highest number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies in Thailand are among 15-24 years old, suggesting that safe sex messages are not reaching this age group.
Robert Gass, Chief of HIV for UNICEF Thailand, was quoted in a press release as saying: “A lack of life skills to control risky situations, together with the use of alcohol and drugs, often puts young people at higher risk of getting HIV and other STIs. In addition, social media, online dating websites and mobile application make it much easier for young people to meet others in order to engage in casual sex.”
While Thailand is considered an early achiever of Millennium Development Goal 6 – halting the spread of HIV – there has not been a consistent decline in HIV incidence across all segments of the population in recent years, the study says.
The study showed a new rise in HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI) cases, especially among young people, with 70 per cent of all STI cases occurring in this age group and that around 41 per cent of new HIV infections in Thailand are among men who have sex with men.
In contrast, among venue-based female sex workers in Thailand, HIV prevalence decreased from 2.8 per cent in 2008 to 1.8 per cent in 2011. However, the study pointed out that sex workers are more likely to use condoms with clients than with their regular partners.
The study found that migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in terms of lacking knowledge about HIV and STI prevention. They also often find it difficult to access free services and essential HIV prevention information due to language and financial barriers.
UNICEF says it believes that Thailand urgently needs more effective protection measures and appropriate testing and treatment programmes for young people in order to curb rising infection rates for HIV and STI. These programs, however, will need to be designed at the community level, with the involvement of young people themselves, so that they meet their specific needs.
“Among several recommendations from the study, we are calling for the age of consent for HIV testing and counselling to be reduced from the current age of 18 years,” Mr. Gass said. “If a young person feels that they have engaged in an activity that puts them at risk of HIV, they should be entitled to have a test without needing parental consent.”
Conducted by Thammasat University with UNICEF support, the study conducted in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Ubon Ratchathani, used focus groups and face-to-face interviews to identify and better understand specific risk behaviours and reviewed and proposed policy and programmatic responses for particular at-risk group.