Senior government health officials from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and China signed an agreement Wednesday to implement programs aimed at limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the region.
The five countries agreed to provide education, counseling and health services to fishermen, sex workers, factory workers, construction workers and truck drivers who make up the region’s “mobile population” of workers.
Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot said the pact could save thousands of lives in Cambodia, the most HIV-ravaged country in Asia. He said that studies have shown Cambodia’s highest rates of HIV are found in border areas, where many migrant workers are found.
“Economic development within Asean is reliant on improvements in the mobility of people,” a UN Development Program statement said. “The sustainability of this development is threatened due to increased HIV vulnerability, as development stimulates unprecedented population movement in Southeast Asia.”
The Asian Development Bank has funded work in Cambodia to link Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Bangkok with a modern highway.
The project is part of an international effort to better link developing countries along the Mekong River and boost regional trade through the construction of bridges, dams and roads.
But it could also contribute to the spread of the disease.
Lee-Nah Hsu, manager of the UN’s Southeast Asia HIV and Development Project, said she returned to Asia after working in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is rampant, “precisely because I saw the devastating effect of Africa’s dam construction.”
She saw how dams could displace thousands of farmers and their families, forcing them to look for low-skilled work in cities. Lacking education, many were forced into prostitution.
Construction projects can also bring about a different kind of population shift, Lee-Nah Hsu said.
In Laos, for example, officials expect to house thousands of workers imported from China and Vietnam to build dams. Truckers from Thailand will bring in construction materials. Electricians from Bangladesh and India and engineers from Europe will also work on the dams, which can take as long as five years to build.
Many are single men, flush with cash and looking for nighttime entertainment.
Many of the local women in these rural areas have never heard of HIV/AIDS. They can be persuaded to have sex because of the relatively large amount of money that is offered, Lee-Nah Hsu said.
“We would like to see all construction projects provide one percent of their budget to education and prevention,” she said. “If people are infected, then what’s the point in having electricity and a water supply for your crops?”
When asked about the role of UN peacekeepers in spreading HIV/AIDS around the world, UN official Robert England said UN staff and peacekeeping soldiers are “among the most mobile populations in the world. So this is a good illustration.
“The UN understands the problem and tries to educate its staff about HIV/AIDS. But the sheer size of the problem is a law unto itself,” said England, UNDP resident representative in Thailand.
Untac soldiers stationed in Cambodia in the early 1990s have been repeatedly blamed by Prime Minister Hun Sen for bringing HIV and AIDS to Cambodia.
Yoshiko Zenda, chair of the UN Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in Cambodia, said Wednesday that “there’s no doubt that the Untac economy created a large opportunity for people to move into Phnom Penh. That probably facilitated a greater risk behavior.”
She noted UN peacekeeping missions in Africa have also been blamed for the spread of HIV.
“We have not been able to act as effectively as we should,” she said.