Nearly 600,000 Thais – almost one percent of the total population – are living with HIV, the AIDS virus. Since the beginning of Thailand’s HIV epidemic in 1985, 1.2 million Thais have been infected with the virus, and half of them have died. The HIV epidemic began in the “high risk” population – men who have sex with men (MSM), intravenous drug users, and female sex workers – but since 1990 has spread rapidly among the general population. After reaching its peak during the second half of the 1990s, Thailand’s HIV epidemic was brought under control thanks to a massive campaign to promote condom use. Incidences of new infection fell from 100,000 – 150,000 per year to about 16,000 per year, but that trend is now reversing.
The prevalence of HIV infection among the MSM population has surged from 18 percent in 2005 to 32 percent in 2009. MSMs now account for 90 percent of newly diagnosed individuals in Bangkok. The latest data also indicate that sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection among female sex workers, military conscripts, and pregnant women are on the rise. Without radical actions to curtail this trend, Thailand will soon find itself in the midst of a second HIV epidemic.
The Thai Red Cross Society has been involved in HIV prevention and care since the first detection of AIDS cases in 1985. Established in 1989, The Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre (TRCARC) conducts research on behalf of the Thai Red Cross Society. TRCARC’s Anonymous Clinic was Asia’s first anonymous HIV counseling and testing site when it was established in 1991, and serves approximately 15,000 clients per year. Under the patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Soamsawali, TRCARC runs a well-known program to help prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, and collaborates with a number of institutions around the world on HIV vaccine research and the study of acute HIV infection and neuroAIDS.
In response to increasing local and global HIV infection rates among the MSM population, TRCARC has launched several MSM-specific initiatives, including:
- HIV counseling and testing
- Screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and related cancers
- Screening and treatment to help prevent HIV infection after unprotected exposure
- An internationally popular “edutainment” website
- Mobile HIV counseling and testing clinics
These programs and activities have resulted in greater numbers of MSMs coming forward for HIV prevention, testing and care.
IBM Thailand has participated in several philanthropic activities as part of IBM’s global commitment to building a sustainable society. Among these efforts has been the application of IBM Business Analytics to the fight against AIDS. IBM worked with TRCARC to develop software applications that would enable online behavior surveys and rapid retrieval of systematically stored data. This 5 million Thai Baht ($USD167,000) software package – including IBM DB2 and IBM Cognos – is enabling TRCARC to execute strategic planning for its HIV prevention programs more accurately and in real time. By turning data into useful information, IBM’s data analytics solutions are helping Thailand’s AIDS-Free Bangkok campaign – in collaboration with UNAIDS – address its 2015 “Getting to Zero” target. We hope that other public health and research providers will adopt similar approaches and use these same tools to combat the spread of HIV both regionally and globally.
Praphan Phanuphak, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Medicine at Chulalongkorn University and Director of The Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre in Bangkok.