World AIDS Day, December 1, 1995
_____Interview with Dr. Werasit Sittitrai (Bangkok) and Dr. John Chittick (Boston) with BBC host in London studios. In honor of World AIDS Day, BBC’s “East Asia Today” program wished to inform their viewers about the HIV epidemic in Southeast Asia. The following is the transcript (Q = Announcer; WS = Werasit Sittitrai; and JBC = John Chittick).
Q: … HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS. Many of the people affected by HIV/AIDS will live in South East Asia. The World Health Organization has warned that the region is fast becoming a main causality zone of the killer disease. I have been discussing the threat posed by HIV AIDS with Dr. Werasit Sittirai, Deputy Director of the Red Cross AIDS Program in Thailand and Dr. John Chittick of Harvard University. Thailand accounts for the majority of known infections in South East Asia. I asked Dr. Sittirai whether the situation in Thailand is worsening or is being brought under control.
WS: At the moment, the situation of the AIDS epidemic in Thailand, we look at it and we are satisfied because we believe we have brought it under control somewhat because the new characters of HIV infections has been reduced during the last three years, particularly among the men.
Q: So how have you managed to bring it under to control?
WS: There are many factors. But the aggressiveness of the Thai International AIDS Program whereby the families have shared and the National AIDS Committee and brought in 14 ministries into the business sector and communities and Buddhist temple to work. The drastic increase in the national AIDS budget, three or four years ago we had about $40 million US dollars per year on the AIDS budget and today we have a little bit over double of that amount. So we think it is being aggressive and bringing in many [inaud] from other areas of health development, like campaign advertising and mass media, using movie stars and education.
Q: Dr. John Chittick of Harvard. You have recently spent 3 months in Vietnam. How would you characterize the situation in Vietnam as compared to Thailand?
JBC: Vietnam, because it was closed off for so many years to the outside world is in a situation where AIDS — HIV/AIDS is a small but growing problem. That is why I am interested in what Dr. Werasit has to say because Vietnam can learn from Thailand.
Q: Are they learning from Thailand? Are they looking to Thailand as a case in point?
JBC: Well the problem is that in any country, including Vietnam, you don’t believe there is a problem unless you see people with AIDS and people who are dying of AIDS. Because it is still a new problem in Vietnam many people don’t see this so they don’t really believe that it is a problem yet. But they hear about it from Thailand and they are worried.
Q: Dr. Werasit, you have also done quite a lot of AIDS research in Burma. The fact that you were invited to go there would suggest that Rangoon is actually taking the threat of HIV AIDS quite seriously.
WS: Yes. That is true. It has been happening for almost two years. The government and NGO and the [national] committee have been taking the AIDS problem seriously and putting in a few national programs on peer education among youths. Peer education on women, emphasized on married women. And now –actually two days from now, I will go to Burma again to conclude national program on school AIDS education. We have just finished a curriculum in schools starting in primary schools up.
Q: So maybe talking of Burma, but also the region as a whole, where do you think the emphasis needs to lie now in terms of public education amongst men, women, or amongst the young?
WS: I have to say, first do not put emphasis on the so called risk group, but just give to everyone, everyone like you said, men, women, the young people. I think finally some of the things we learned prevention has to go side by side with care and compassion. You cannot do one and after a few years you come to do compassion.
Q: Ambitious targets outlined by Dr. Werasit. Dr. Chittick, do you think they are achievable?
JBC: I am not quite sure that they are achievable and I would respectively disagree with Dr. Werasit on the idea that HIV/AIDS is under control in Thailand or in Southeast Asia. While there have been effective efforts among some groups, the danger is still growing. I think Vietnam is having a real problem that is going to grow much greater. The UNDP is now estimating 600,000 Vietnamese will have HIV within the next three years. And yet the government is only saying that they have 3,500 cases presently. So there is an obvious discrepancy — [I think] a tremendous epidemic is about to take place and it’s going to be very obvious to everybody. I think Vietnam is trying harder but I am still worried that they don’t take this problem as seriously as they should.
Q: Dr. John Chittick of Harvard University. And I was also talking to Dr. Werasit Sittitrai, Deputy Director of the Red Cross AIDS Programs in Thailand. You are listening to the BBC World Service, this is “East Asia Today.”
© 1996, Dr. J. B. Chittick, USA