Today, an estimated 500,000 people in Thailand are living with HIV/AIDS, and rates are rising among young people. Last year, the country’s most prominent HIV/AIDS awareness campaign leader, Mechai Viravaidya, warned that the country was facing a renewed crisis, thanks in large part to a lack of sex education for young people and high rates of unprotected sex.
Unfortunately, many are living with and potentially spreading the virus without even knowing it, which is why getting tested is so important.
“In Chiang Mai there are many places to get tested but few have the kind of friendly service that makes people feel calm and relaxed,” says Witthiphan Champa, Project Coordinator for the Chiang Mai Buddy Station Health Unit Centre, a new clinic that just opened this past February and a powerful new tool in Thailand’s fight against the deadly virus.
Buddy Station will provide HIV and syphilis testing as well as full counselling services for men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender (TG). Services are free and all information remains confidential.
The project is backed by local charity organisation Caremat, which has been dedicated to supporting, promoting and providing understanding and knowledge for and about gay and transgender people since 2003, with a specific focus on healthcare for those living with HIV.
The goal of Caremat’s newest project is twofold: it strives to both gather statistics while also providing a comfortable and convenient resource for those who want to be tested. Their first trial, which is going on now, will target only MSM, TG and male sex workers, with capacity for 300 people. The next trial, expected to begin in July, will open up to all members of the population, including women and straight males.
So far, trial one has seen 113 individuals tested, ranging in age from 20-35 years. Of the 113 tested, a full 21 (almost 20%) were found to be HIV positive. 73 tested positive for syphilis, and 7 tested positive for both HIV and syphilis.
“We are currently looking for more people to be tested, so that we can collect data and move forward with the second trial,” says Witthiphan.
Any ethnicity or nationality is welcome to partake in the test, and in the case of positive diagnosis, patients will be assigned to a one-on-one Buddy dedicated to helping them access proper treatment and move forward with their lives. While Thailand typically requires a T-cell count of 350 or below in order to receive treatment (versus 500 in America), Buddy Station has no minimum – the decision to receive treatment is completely up to the patient, who can consult with their assigned Buddy to make an informed decision.
Funding for the Buddy Station centre comes from American nonprofits PEPFAR (The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development).
Chiang Mai Buddy Station welcomes walk-ins (though appointments can be made for those who would prefer not to wait). The entire process – pre-counseling, testing, post-counselling and results – takes only 45 minutes. Everything is completely confidential and anonymous, with test results delivered in a sealed envelope.
“Better quality of life starts with yourself,” says Witthiphan. “The first step is getting tested.”
You can visit the Buddy Station Health Unit Centre anytime during their weekend opening hours, on Fridays from 5-8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5pm.
Address: 257/36 Suthep Rd., Suthep, Muang Chiang Mai (opposite the ODPC 10)