HANOI, Vietnam (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Long overshadowed by the government’s attention to other at-risk groups, Vietnam is failing to stem HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM), a group that is hidden due to social stigma.
"The evidence clearly shows that MSM in Vietnam are a population at a higher HIV risk that requires focus,” Christopher Fontaine, an adviser for the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Vietnam, said.
“Out of all of Vietnam’s sub-epidemics, the epidemic among MSM appears to be rising the fastest.”
Driving the MSM-HIV emergence are Vietnam’s two largest cities: Hanoi (6.5 million people) and Ho Chi Minh City (7.4 million).
The HIV prevalence rate of MSM in Hanoi soared from 11 to 20 percent, while in Ho Chi Minh City it more than doubled from 6 to 14 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to the 2012 Integrated Biological and Behavioural Surveillance (IBBS) survey.
MSM with HIV are primarily seen as an urban problem, but high levels of stigma toward men having sex with men across the country can allow the virus to thrive, health experts warn.
“Although same-sex relationships aren’t illegal in Vietnam, they are not well accepted by Vietnamese society,” Fontaine said. “Men who have sex with men must enter an underground system in order to form sexual relationships. This is a huge barrier to reaching them with HIV services."
Vietnam still lacks an accurate countrywide HIV prevalence rate for MSM as IBBS data was only collected in four “hotspot” cities, three of which had rates of over 10 percent.