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Laos Opens Up to World and AIDS Threat

July 7, 2003

The United Nations fears that attempts by isolated, landlocked, communist Laos to open up to the outside world and adopt a market economy could also increase transmission of HIV. "Laos has been the quiet achiever at keeping the spread of HIV at bay, but this could all change," said Tony Lisle, a top UNAIDS official in Southeast Asia. "The country is facing the same issues that its neighbors have faced in the past, and the threat of HIV/AIDS is as big as ever. As the pace of development increases, so does the AIDS risk," Lisle said.

A UN-World Health Organization report at the end of 2001 said Laos had an HIV infection rate of .04 percent of adults ages 15-49 -- a fraction of the rate for its neighbors, 2.7 percent in Cambodia and 1.8 percent in Thailand. The UN said Laos has hardly any migrant workers and few intravenous drug users, and the government successfully educated its people about the disease when infections began to rise in the mid-1990s.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Laotian economy has struggled. In a bid to boost its fragile economy, Laos has promoted tourism and improved trade ties with its neighbors. New roads are planned to link Laos with Thailand, Vietnam and China. A domestic north-south route is also proposed.

"More truck drivers and construction workers will come across the border -- single men or men living away from their families -- which will inevitably increase the number of people working in the domestic sex industry," Lisle said. Poverty means large numbers of people are expected to travel to China and Thailand to fish or work on building sites; many are likely to be lured toward prostitution, the UN said.

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Excerpted from:
06.24.03; Martin Petty

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