Permissive attitudes of Laotian men toward sex and prostitution facilitated the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) during the 1980s and 1990s, making HIV infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) a growing concern. In 1992 a focused sample of about 7,600 urban residents identified one AIDS case and fourteen persons who tested HIV positive. No other statistics were available as of mid-1994.
The government convened a conference on AIDS in 1992, which noted the potential for a rapid spread of HIV in the population. Participants at the conference agreed that the spread of AIDS in Laos was inevitable, and, in fact, would likely be through young men who migrated to towns and then returned to their villages, as well as through women who entered the sex trades because of economic necessity. The numbers of HIV-positive people could increase to more than 10,000 within the next few years, although these numbers would likely not expand at the same rate as in Thailand--even though Thai men demonstrate similar attitudes toward sex and prostitution--because Laos's national policies forbid open prostitution. Through the early 1990s, Laos avoided widespread prostitution such as that found in neighboring countries, but it is likely to increase, as is the temporary migration of Laotian women to neighboring countries to work in the sex industry. Other possible routes of HIV infection include users of injectable illicit drugs and medical injections using unsanitary syringes. Should AIDS spread significantly in Laos, it will not only have a devastating effect on rural labor and the national economy, but will put impossible stress on the health care system. As the best means of preventing an epidemic, the conference report emphasized education in all sectors of the population through a variety of methods, including the media.
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