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22 Nov 2004

singapore health ministry to work with gay community to fight AIDS

Although Singapore would not embark on a "publicity blitz" to promote condom use, the health ministry will involve Fridae among other partners to get the safe sex message across to respective target groups.

Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State for Health told reporters after he chaired a consultative meeting last Friday involving health officials and representatives from Fridae.com, non-government organisation Action for AIDS (AfA), Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Singapore Red Cross, Communicable Disease Center, AIDS Task Force and the Health Promotion Board.

Although condoms are not 100% effective at preventing HIV transmission; however, when used correctly and consistently, condoms are still the surest way in reducing the risk of transmitting and acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The meeting came after Dr Balaji singled out gay men's unsafe sexual practices being the biggest cause of concern amid the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS infection cases and AfA for not doing a good enough job in HIV awareness and education in his speech to doctors on November 10. He also cited an article on Fridae, which he felt promoted a promiscuous and reckless lifestyle.

In response, Fridae issued a statement which was published in the Straits Times and quoted in several other news reports that as Asia's largest gay and lesbian portal, it strongly believes that acknowledging a healthy sexual lifestyle is important in getting its readers to relate to public health messages, which in turn has the highest chance of success in encouraging safe sex behaviours. Fridae also pledged to make available the significant resources to the Ministry to promote its public health messages.

Stuart Koe, CEO, Fridae who attended the meeting said: "The Ministry's recent efforts to include the MSM community in its outreach is commendable, and Fridae looks forward to working with the Ministry of Health, the AIDS Task Force, and the CDC in formulating a comprehensive and effective strategy that is sensitive to the MSM community."

According to sources, health officials at the meeting acknowledged that gay men must be addressed directly when formulating a long-term approach to stem the increasing HIV infection rates in the city-state with a population of 4 million.

Although the health ministry recognises that a one size fits all campaign would not be the most effective and that each specific group needs to be reached as directly as possible, they said that the "sensitivities" of the general public must be respected.

Dr Balaji said on a television news bulletin on Sunday: "Now because we want to protect people, we do not want people to get AIDS, regardless of their morals, that does not mean that the ministry will take a position condoning a lifestyle that goes against the values of Singapore!"

The meeting marks the first time the ministry is looking to target MSM in a concerted campaign to fight HIV/AIDS along with other high-risk groups. Health officials will also look into addressing legal concerns that might impede effective safer sex promotion.

While the health ministry will continue to engage all the different organisations in formulating a long-term strategy, Dr Balaji reiterated that Singapore would not go on a publicity blitz to promote condom use, as that would be "offensive" to "conservative people."

Meanwhile, AfA said that they would certainly intensify its efforts in the light of Dr Balaji's statements as far as their limited resources will allow them to do so.

"His original statement was a good wakeup call and we hope to use it to mobilise and work even more closely with stakeholders in the gay community to reduce risk behaviour in the community. We are deeply appreciative of the support we have received from many stakeholders thus far and hope to involve even more in future efforts." Said Roger Winder, AfA's Programme Director.

He also urges community participation at the MSM Symposium at the 4th Singapore AIDS Conference which might help provide more insights and offer new perspectives. (More info below.)

In his November 10 speech, Dr Balaji said that the government expects more than 300 new cases this year and in excess of 1,000 in 2010. He said that if unchecked, the number of HIV cases in the country would reach more than 15,000 by 2010.


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