Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Minister of AIDS

In the early 1990s, it was widely predicted that Thailand would be a giant petri dish for the virus that causes HIV/AIDS. A number of factors, including the general acceptance of sexual activity as a natural part of life, and the availability of commercial sex, sent the statisticians' computers into overload.

Some authorities predicted that as many as 60 percent of the population could ultimately become infected.

Well, here it is 2010 and the actual numbers are light-years lower than the predictions. In fact,
they're lower than they were in the early 1990s. The incidence of HIV infection in Thailand has actually dropped in the last 20 years, and shared needles are the most common current cause of infection.

One man is largely responsible for saving several million lives. In a world where heroes are hard to come by, Mechai Viravaidya (pictured above) qualifies.

Born to a Thai father and a Scottish mother, Mechai founded a nonprofit family planning organization for the rural poor in the 1970s. The group stressed (among other things) condom use, and they did it with creative vigor. They held condom blowing-up contests among school kids, passed out condoms at every community gathering, and provided taxi drivers with
condoms for their passengers.

By the time AIDS hit Thailand late in the 1980s, Mechai had gone into government, and in 1991 he was named Minister of Tourism, Information and (at his insistence) AIDS. Unhampered by religious strictures or ultra-conservatives, he attacked the disease with every resource at his command.

Practically overnight, every bar in Thailand had a big brandy snifter on it, full of free condoms.

Since some sex workers are illiterate, groups of young actors took to the streets, especially in the entertainment district, doing comedy routines that included several young women unrolling a giant condom over a standing man. Classes in proper condom use were held in virtually every red-light venue. Hotels and brothels were given free condoms by the millions.

Suddenly condoms were everywhere. They were in television cartoons, in childrens' magazines, in public-service spots. The safe-sex message targeted the young men and women of the Thai armed services, high school and university kids, Thailand's large gay and katoey (transvestite) population, and every other at-risk and potentially at-risk group in the Kingdom.

Condom manufacture was encouraged with government grants. They were made in every possible color and flavor, including tropical fruits. They became ubiquitous. They became that most potent of all Asian adjectives: they became cute.

They also became (well, sort of) fashionable. Mechai's group encouraged fashion designers to create, for want of a better term, condom couture, and the designers threw themselves into the task with results like those above. These dresses and hats are made almost entirely of condoms.

Mechai diversified but kept the message intact when he founded his restaurant chain, which is called Cabbages & Condoms. In the photo at the top of this piece, Mechai poses beside one of the restaurants' well-protected lighting fixtures. The centerpiece of each table is a colorful bouquet of inflated condoms. As old Thai hands say frequently, "Only in Thailand."

This sign guides tourists to a Cabbages & Condoms resort. I love the two disgruntled little sperm at the bottom.

So the plague was largely averted. Mechai returned to the nonprofit sector and his organization, now the Kingdom's largest NGO, recently received a one-million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the thing Mechai is proudest of is the fact that, throughout Thailand, condoms are known as "mechais."

And here he is, one more time, with, yes, a condom teddy bear.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Condom teddy bear? If there was ever an object that proves full acceptance or integration of the condom into a society this has to be it. Great article!


  2. What an extraordinary man. He combined science and culture and changed the minds of a nation.

    If only someone, somehow could do the same for Africa but I know that customs and religions vary so much from state to state that it has to be a process that arises from each nation's history and view of life.

    It isn't just the refusal of Christian groups to support and encourage the use of condoms that prevents cultures from accepting that condoms save lives. It is also the notion that their use is somehow demeaning to men. Thailand didn't have the religious issue but how did Mechai convince the men of Thailand to change their behavior within the concepts of the culture? That is what is needed in Africa and in the poorest countries in other parts of the world. It is certainly a problem in Haiti or what is left of it.

    (This post labels me as apostate and heretic. If my mother ever knew....).


  3. Great post. Great blog! First time here--I've subscribed to your feed. I'll be back!

  4. ". . . of ships and sails and sealing wax, of cabbages and . . ." Condoms? Okay, that works for me. Good thing a computer geek didn't dream up HIV-prevention technology; you'd have to plug it in (or charge the batteries), program it, give it password protection, and still you'd worry about some damned virus or another. Sometimes the simplest technology is the best technology.

  5. He's a genuinely great man, and also an exemplar of Thai cheerfulness. It's impossible to find anyone with anything bad to say about him.

    Yrsa, glad you liked it. And the condom teddy bear really is a remarkable symbol, as well as being a representative slice of Thai whimsy.

    Beth, his group aimed their message as much at men as at women, even exaggerating the degree of risk (to the male, that is) in any act of unprotected sex. And he also worked from the other end, persuading women all over Thailand, including sex workers, to decline sex with any man who didn't wear a condom. Among the sex workers who weren't allowed to decline clients, Mechai's forces targeted the pimps and mama-sans, making them more aware of the economic drain of having their workers get sick and die. (I know that sounds cold-blooded, but this was an unremittingly pragmatic campaign.) There was also a hilarious series of commercials, mocking those for real products such as Alain Delon cigarettes, that proposed condoms as the essential fashion accessory for the truly enviable man.

    What he had in Thailand, and what is missing in Africa and Haiti, was a full-bore commitment from the government, plus a big budget, a population that was overwhelmingly literate, and effective centralized media, mainly TV and newspapers, to present his arguments.

    Welcome Bic -- everyone on this site writes something great every day. You're welcome to come back forever.

    Phil -- Yeah, the thing about condoms is that they're so simple and essentially so foolproof. That's why I think there should be a special corner of Hell, maybe with people eternally fastened to IV drips full of molten metal, for the ultra-religious fanatics and the panderers to "family values" who oppose the promotion of condom use.

  6. This guy did a real service. And I applaud the people for accepting him. Anyone who has read John Burdett's books has a glimpse into the strange culture that is sex&Thailand. Timothy- I think I'll have to delve into yours next! What in interesting post.


  7. very good blog about AIDS , i learn a lot reading your information, thanks and i hope read more blogs from you.

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