Thai HIV/AIDS Advocate Mechai Receives Gates Award for Global Health
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced that it will award Mechai Viravaidya, one of Thailand's leading HIV/AIDS advocates and former public health minister, and the Population and Community Development Association the Gates Award for Global Health, the Boston Globe reports. The $1 million award -- to be presented on Thursday at the Global Health Council's 2007 Conference in Washington, D.C. -- is the world's largest award in international health, the Globe reports. Mechai and his organization were among 90 groups nominated for the award, the Globe reports (Donnelly, Boston Globe, 5/29).
Mechai in early April was appointed to design a new federal HIV prevention plan to target the country's youth. According to UNAIDS, Thailand has an adult HIV prevalence of about 1.4%, but a World Bank report released last year found that an additional 7.7 million people would be HIV-positive if the country had not implemented effective prevention programs in the 1990s. Much of the credit for that turnaround is attributed to Mechai, who during the past 30 years has used humor and promoted condom use to eliminate the stigma surrounding the discussion of sex in the country (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/9).
Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation's Global Health Program, said that Mechai has been fighting HIV/AIDS for many years, adding, "Without a lot of money, without a lot of technology or science, he and his organization have had a big impact." According to the Globe, Mechai's organization has grown from a "handful" of workers to a staff of 600 along with 12,000 volunteers. Yamada said some of Mechai's strategies, particularly those that have helped empower women and communities, could be used in other countries to fight HIV/AIDS. The programs have "allowed women to make choices, or a sex worker to feel strong enough to demand her customers use condoms," Yamada said, adding, "In reproductive health, the exchange of information was done in communities, often led by people in those communities."
Mechai has sought to increase public discussion about sex in Thailand, the Globe reports. Although many international health organizations apply the "ABC" model -- which stands for abstinence, be faithful and use condoms -- Mechai said that prevention programs should "start off not with A or B but start off with S -- sex." He added, "You've got to understand what drives human beings regarding sex and how to control it if you can. Sex is not bad, but when and with whom is important." He also said that his message for youth is to abstain from sex for as long as possible. "I say, 'Try to hang on, don't fly yet, wait until you have enough feathers on you,'" Mechai said, adding, "And if you're going to fly, make sure you have a safety belt -- condoms" (Boston Globe, 5/29).