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Spotlight Series: HIV Stigma and Discrimination
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Burma Confronts Taboo, Educates Villagers About HIV Prevention

May 17, 2004

Until 2002, Burma's ruling military junta considered AIDS a taboo subject. But striking ignorance about reproduction and poor health care allowed HIV/AIDS to gain inroads in Burma. By mid-2002, government records indicated there were 177,279 Burmese living with HIV -- a figure far short of a 1999 Johns Hopkins University study that suggested at least 687,000 people, or almost 3.5 percent of the country's adult population, were infected with HIV. While that study included pregnant women, soldiers, sex workers, blood donors and gay men, it excluded an estimated 1.4 million drug users.

Fearing that high-risk groups could spread HIV to the general population, the junta began allowing local and international health workers to help contain the virus. Washington, D.C.-based Population Services International (PSI) instructs cab drivers and migrant workers how to use condoms, trains university students to become health educators, and encourages Buddhist monks to dissuade people from having premarital sex or using drugs.

Nonprofit PSI also set out to reach remote areas, where more than 70 percent of Burma's population lives. The group brings HIV-prevention films to villages via three "Love Boats," and a car dubbed the "Love Bug." The boats can seat up to 300-400 villagers for onboard showings of films featuring popular Burmese actors. Khin Mar Cho, a 38-year-old housewife attending a showing, said awareness about HIV/AIDS is increasing. "Married couples, single people have started using condoms," she noted. Subsidized condoms wholesaled by PSI retail for 2-11 cents each -- an affordable price in Burma where the annual per capita income is just $300.

But critics charge that PSI and other foreign-funded groups free the junta from health spending and claim the government's recent interest in AIDS is a ploy to receive more international funds. The government's underspending on health must be addressed, concedes Charles Petrie, a UN Development Program representative in Burma. "But it shouldn't be tied to the issue of helping people in extreme situations."

Back to other news for May 17, 2004

Adapted from:
San Francisco Chronicle
05.14.04; Vanessa Hua

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
See Also
Myanmar and HIV/AIDS