Phuket health workers battle HIV/Aids, STDs – and social stigma

PHUKET: It’s no secret that prostitution, while illegal, is rife on Phuket.

While most public agencies turn a blind eye to the reality, the Phuket Provincial Health Office (PPHO) however, continues to run its ongoing campaign to ensure sex workers have voluntary regular health checks.

On the front lines as head of the PPHO’s HIV/Aids division is Eam-orn Kittitornkul, a 22-year veteran of public health work in Thailand.

Ms Eam-orn and her team do not debate the legality of prostitution, nor do they lecture on morality; they simply go out on the streets once a month to educate and check the health of scores of women on Phuket engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

The officers have one goal in mind: protecting the women’s health. They conduct regular checkups, educate on safe sex practices, and conduct free blood testing for HIV/Aids.

It has proved a challenge to get women to come forward and have the checkups. That takes trust, and trust takes time to develop.

“The relationship between female sex workers and public health officers and volunteers has been more than just friends for a while now,” says Ms Eam-orn.

“We’re like family. This helps us to convince them to get health checkups,” she explained.

Statistics add weight to her argument: In July 2009, there were 6,457 people in Phuket known to have HIV/Aids. As of July this year, that number had risen to 6,951.

That’s 494 new HIV/Aids cases “arriving” in the province in a single year – more than one per day.

According to PPHO statistics, 93.1% of those in Phuket with HIV/Aids contracted the condition through unprotected sex.

Adding to the problem is an array of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) present on the island.

An estimated 80% of reported STD infections occur through heterosexual sex, but that only includes cases the PPHO knows about. Many more cases are treated at private clinics.

To encourage more women to step up and undergo health checks, Ms Eam-orn and her team recently ran the Phuket part of a national campaign launched under the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The campaign included road shows in four major tourism and economic areas – Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai and Phuket – with the aim of breaking down the social stigma faced by female sex workers.

The program asserted that by not looking down on themselves, female sex workers would be more likely to take better care of their health, which would lead to fewer incidences of STDs.

The number of STD cases reported to the PPHO in Phuket has fallen from 558 last year to 429 this year.

In Phuket, Ms Eam-orn and her team took the campaign to the heart of Phuket Town’s sex industry: Phun Pol Rd Soi 11.

They spoke to the women and showed a short film highlighting that female sex workers have the same human rights as others and should not let their occupation shame them into avoiding medical services.

Sao (not her real name), a 36-year-old sex worker originally from Suphanburi, said, “I know that society looks down on us all the time, but whether we feel insulted by it is up to us. I normally come for health checks about twice a month, or if possible once a week.

“It is important to look after our health, such as by using condoms. I have to be careful and refuse customers who ask to not use one,” she added.

— Sittipong Nongkaew

Phuket News

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