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“Captain Condom” Mechai spent decades normalising condoms

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PHOTO: Mechai aka Captain Condom saved an estimated 7.7 million lives promoting safe sex and condoms. (via YouTube)

A pivotal figure in battling both Thailand’s overpopulation problem of the 1970s and the AIDS epidemic beginning in the 80s, Mechai Viravaidya earned his title of Captain Condom. The controversial but charming man is now 81 years old, but Mechai famously battled for decades for birth control and sexual health so fervently that his adversaries pushed to popularise calling condoms “mechais.”

In 1970, both Thailand and the Philippines had an exploding population with about 36 million people each. Now, the Philippines has tripled to over 110 million people with millions forced to go abroad to find work to support large families at home. Thailand has doubled in population to about 70 million people, but the population explosion slowed from 3% in 1974 to 0.6% in 2005 and family sizes reduced from an average of seven children to two per family.

Mechai was a major part of this cultural shift, talking openly on a national scale about contraception when no one else would, in what the World Bank called “one of the most successful and effective family planning programmes in the world.” He launched a campaign in Thailand in the early 1970s to encourage family planning and to normalise condoms to be just a regular shopping item, not a taboo subject.

Though Mechai was educated at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and Harvard in the US, born to a Scottish mother and Thai father who were both doctors, and even gave a TED talk on the subject, Captain Condom realised a much more low-brow method would be far more effective in educating the public.

So he set to work demystifying condoms by playing games – blowing them up or filling them with water, handing them out in public and at events with wild gimmicks that made condoms seem accessible and fun. Mechai had monks bless condoms, made an ABCs of sex to educate young people, set up “family planning supermarkets” at bus stations that gave out condoms, and even celebrated the king’s birthday with free vasectomies.

He also opened up the now infamous Bangkok restaurant Cabbages & Condoms.

Not only did his outlandish antics attract a lot of attention and raise awareness, but he trained 12,000 small town community leaders and about 350,000 teachers across Thailand to proliferate his message.

When the government was lacklustre on promoting safe sex for fear of damaging the sex tourism industry, Mechai went to the military to use their 300 radio stations and five TV stations to promote condoms and safety. Eventually, the government embraced him and he was made the Minister of Information and Tourism in 1991 and he tasked nearly all ministries with fighting the AIDS epidemic.

As a result, Thailand saw a rapid 90% decline in new infections that the World Health Organisation called the fastest response to AIDs in the world, and the World Bank estimated saved 7.7 million lives.

Not bad for a man named Captain Condom making water balloons out of contraceptives.

SOURCE: New York Times

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Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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