The late 1990’s were a deadly time in Cambodia. 3.7% of the population were infected with HIV and the trend seemed poised to grow. In an effort to save their citizens, the government launched an “aggressive” safe-sex campaign. It worked. These days, only .9% of the population carries the deadly retrovirus. One specific group, however, hasn’t heard the warnings: men who have sex with men.
These males, who don’t identify as gay or bisexual, are largely unaware of – or choose to ignore – safe-sex guidelines. And they’re paying the price.
“There is a very serious concentrated epidemic among MSM,” says Tony Lisle, Cambodia’s UNAIDS country coordinator.
Noting that MSM make up roughly four percent of all men in the country, he adds: “The hidden MSM population is significant and if we don’t avert new infections the MSM epidemic could contribute significantly to the overall (HIV) prevalence rate.”
Prevalence among men engaging in gay sex is 8.7 percent, nearly 10 times the norm, while incidences of other sexually-transmitted diseases are rapidly rising, indicating that fewer MSM are using condoms.
In addition to finding new informational angles, outreach workers have to blast through generations of discrimination and social stigma. If they fail, well, the entire nation may suffer.
Luckily, the government has unveiled MSM-specific working groups to spread awareness. One clinic, founded in 2003, started with only a couple of clients. They now serve 200 a month.