IRIN/PlusNews Examines Program in Laos Targeting MSMIRIN/PlusNews on Monday examined a peer education program in Laos directed toward "hidden" men who have sex with men, a group that is "difficult to identify in HIV prevention and surveillance" despite being "probably the largest group of MSM in the country." Anan Bouapha -- a former coordinator for the project, which is run by the Australian medical research facility the Burnet Institute -- said, "Unlike transsexuals or openly gay men, hidden MSM can be homosexual, bisexual or straight. They might not want to be identified as MSM but we need to get the safe-sex message to them, no matter how difficult this is." IRIN/PlusNews reports that the program's peer educators visit places young men are most likely to gather, such as beer shacks, saunas or video shops. Bouapha said that the peer educators are trained to discuss HIV and other sexually transmitted infection prevention, as well as how to approach MSM so that they feel comfortable asking questions.
However, IRIN/PlusNews reports that interventions like this "may not be enough to stem an HIV/AIDS epidemic" in the country, where programs for HIV prevention, treatment and care aimed at MSM have not yet been rolled out nationwide. Establishing contact with Lao MSM, especially hidden MSM, is vital to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Laos, which has a prevalence of 5.6% among MSM compared with 0.1% among the general population, according to a 2007 study conducted by the Burnet Institute and the Ministry of Health. The study's findings "represent a worrying trend" in Laos because ignorance of HIV/AIDS among some MSM, especially those with female partners, "could potentially lead to an epidemic in the broader community, something which the country has so far been able to avoid," IRIN/PlusNews reports (IRIN/PlusNews, 4/6). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.