Men Who Have Sex With Men Vulnerable to HIV/AIDS in Asia, but Widely Ignored

In Kobe, Japan, at the recent 7th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, officials said that discrimination against men who have sex with men (MSM) in the region is increasing their vulnerability to HIV.

Steve Wignall of Family Health International said that while there is a dearth of accurate statistics on the issue, some surveys have found that the rate of HIV infections among MSM was nearly 20 percent in Thailand, 14 percent in Cambodia and 8 percent in Vietnam. Reaching this population is difficult due to social stigma and also because it includes men who sell sex to other men but do not self-identify as gay or bisexual.

Most Asian HIV-prevention programs focus on heterosexuals, such as female sex workers. It is time for governments to begin education and treatment programs targeting MSM, Wignall said, and to distribute condoms in the MSM community.

Yet many challenges confront such an effort. The government of Vietnam does not formally recognize that MSM communities exist and depicts homosexuality as a "social evil," said Le Cao Dung of the Ho Chi Minh City provincial AIDS committee. Similar problems exist in China, while civil strife in Nepal puts public health workers at risk.

In Japan, MSM account for the majority of the nation's 12,000 HIV cases, but MSM and lesbians are largely ignored and find speaking out difficult, said Hiromi Hatogai of the Japanese outreach group OCCUR.