Thailand: AIDS Vaccines, Cabbages and Condoms

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED October 16, 2009
The entrance to Cabbages & Condoms' romantically-lit courtyard. (Photo by Bonnie Heath)

I’ve been back from Thailand three weeks now (two of them flu-free!), so this is pretty much the last chance I have to get away with posting a few vacation photos. As with last week’s post on Bangkok sinking into the ocean, I’m wrapping this one around a relevant scientific topic: the battle against AIDS in Thailand.

I don’t think I have to prep anyone on the damage caused by AIDS in the developing world. If you need a reminder, I briefly explained it on this page, and we have the in-depth story in How Aids Works.

Compared to other developing countries, Thailand has held its ground pretty well on the AIDS front. Thanks to a massive, well-funded and politically supported public health control program, the country has reduced visits to commercial sex workers by half, raised condom usage, decreased the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections dramatically and achieved substantial reductions in new HIV infections. According to AVERT, the program has saved millions of lives, reducing the number of new HIV infections from 143,000 in 1991 to 19,000 in 2003.

Two condom-clad superheroes watch on from the sidelines. (Photo by Bonnie Heath)

Cabbages & Condoms is a great example of just a small part of this initiative in action — and one restaurant in Bangkok that my wife and I made sure to check out. Where else can you enjoy excellent, tongue-immolating Thai cuisine under the watchful gaze of mannequins dressed in superhero costumes made from stitched-together rubber johnnies.

Opened by local senator Mechai Viravaidya, founder of the Population & Community Development Association, Cabbages & Condoms helps fund AIDS awareness and population control, in addition to a host of rural development programs. So really, it’s a great way to build a little extra karma on your East Asian vacation. Plus, the atmosphere is romantic, the food is delicious and instead of mints, your waiter slips you a couple of Thai condoms with your final bill.

During our trip, news broke that Thailand had conducted successful trials on an experimental AIDS vaccine. According to Reuters, the vaccine was made using two failed products: Sanofi-Pasteur’s ALVAC canary pox/HIV vaccine and AIDSVAX, made by San Francisco’s VaxGen. Funded by the U.S. Army, the vaccine cuts the risk of HIV infection by more than 30 percent, according to the BBC.

Your loyal science blogger. (Photo by Bonnie Heath)

Obviously, this is all great news for world health and the Thai people in particular. Still, it’s a battle that requires continued vigilance. According to AVERT, despite its excellent strides in prevention, more than one-in-100 Thai adults are HIV positive, and AIDS has become a leading cause of death for this population of 65 million people.

If you’re planning to visit Thailand in the immediate future, again, I highly recommend checking out Cabbages & Condoms. They even have a delightful gift shop, and the walls are decorated with displays of condom packaging from around the globe. Read more about them at the official site. or check them out on Frommer’s.

ALSO: Just for fun, here are 161 slang alternatives to “please use a condom.” Hey, it’s for a good cause, right?

Bone up on condoms at HowStuffWorks.com:
How AIDS Works
How Condoms Work
10 Worst Epidemics
Thailand: Sinking Cities and Fading Deltas

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