Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar
Bali needs to step up its effort to contain the increasing spread of HIV/AIDS through heterosexual transmission, an activist says.
"We cannot wait for people to die first then set up a prevention program," Dewa Nyoman Wirawan, head of HIV/AIDS prevention organization Kerti Praja foundation, said Monday during a discussion on HIV/AIDS at the Bali governor's office.
The rate of HIV/AIDS transmission among injecting drug users in Bali has remained relatively stable due to the Needle Exchange Program and Methadone Maintenance Therapy -- successful pilot projects; but the rate of sexually transmitted HIV/AIDS in Bali is alarming.
More than half of all HIV/AIDS cases in Bali were the result of sexual transmission.
Wirawan said 840 men in Bali will contract the virus this year through sexual contact with HIV-positive sex workers "assuming there are only 3,000 sex workers in Bali, with one customer per day, working 250 days per year".
According to research done by the foundation this year, some 14 percent of sex workers in Bali are HIV-positive. The foundation estimates there are around 8,800 sex workers in Bali who have a customer base of around 85,000.
He described this as a "very conservative estimate" that excluded "partners (of customers) at home ... infection of other sex workers by customers and ... the number of babies being infected from pregnant HIV-positive-mothers".
An HIV/AIDS epidemic in the heterosexual group, he warned, would be the bridge through which the virus would shift from a concentrated epidemic to a generalized one.
"Generalized epidemic means anyone can be infected," Wirawan said.
Efforts to curtail the prostitution-related spread of the disease the island have been minimal and largely unsuccessful. Wirawan said that the response to condom campaigns had been lukewarm, with only 20 percent of men who visit sex workers using condoms.
Bali Deputy Governor Alit Kesuma Kelakan, who is also head of the Bali chapter of the National AIDS Commission, said he will go ahead with his plan to legalize prostitution in an effort to contain the spread of the virus among sex workers.
Legalizing prostitution and acknowledging the existence of red-light districts would make it easier for the authorities to monitor the health conditions of the sex workers as well as implement necessary measures to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Kelakan said he would "continue to lobby legislators and religious leaders on this program".
"If the program doesn't get any funding from the regional
budget, we will look for other sources of funding."
"We should take a humanitarian perspective on this problem .... Every institution, religious, traditional, administrative and legislative, should work together" to address it he said.
A number of local legislators and religious leaders have criticized the idea as contradicting traditional and religious values upheld by Balinese people that would taint the image of the tourist resort.
KPAD Bali estimated that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS on the island had exceeded 4,000 by August 2007.