Tuesday, August 21, 2007


When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave its one million dollar Global Health prize to the former Health Minister of Thailand, they did it because he handed out millions of condoms over the past 30 years.

Mechai Viravaidya, once known as “Mr. Condom” in Thailand, persuaded Bangkok’s traffic police to give condoms away in a program tabbed “Cops & Rubbers.” In the worldwide fight against AIDS, Viravaidya achieved something few others have: he got people to discuss sex openly, and he saved lives while doing it. As reported in the Boston Globe, a World Bank analysis estimated that an additional 7.7 million Thais would have been HIV positive, if the country had not acted so aggressively.

In receiving the prestigious Gates Foundation Award, the Thai leader pointed out the limitations of the ABC method (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) promoted by the U. S. around the world. “You’ve got to start off not with A, or B, but start off with S—Sex,” Viravaidya said. “You’ve got to understand what drives human beings regarding sex, and how to control it if you can.”

Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program President Tachi Yamada noted that the strategies employed by the Thai visionary could be used elsewhere to fight AIDS, particularly those programs that “have allowed women to make choices or a sex worker to feel strong enough to demand that the customers use condoms.”

Thailand’s effective safer sex campaign was supported by the Government, religious leaders, and the media, a partnership approach that put the small, Southeast Asian nation far, far ahead of the United States in fighting HIV/AIDS. And what is Mechai Viravaidya doing today now that he is no longer a government official? Lobbying for a large pharmaceutical firm? Not quite. He’s running his non-profit Population and Community Development Association, and funding it from the proceeds of his business—a Bangkok restaurant named “Condoms & Cabbages,” where patrons eat delicious Thai food, look at condom-covered lamps and tables, and always leave with protection.

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