Thai medical tourism expands into new area: HIV prevention
SEOUL — In 2017, David Lee, 34, boarded a flight from Seoul to Thailand, a popular holiday destination for the nearly 2 million South Koreans who visit the subtropical country annually. But Lee was not going for the pad thai noodles and dreamy white sand beaches.
“I went to protect myself against HIV,” Lee — not his real name — tells the Nikkei Asian Review.
Thailand is a leading global destination for medical tourism, where patients travel abroad for private health care: Global Markets Insight forecasts that by 2025 Thailand’s industry will be worth $500 million, and the government has a strategy to encourage it.
But while medical tourism in Thailand is usually associated with affordable, high-quality surgery, dentistry and even face-lifts, now there is an important and growing niche: preventing HIV.
PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a preventive medicine which reduces the risk of getting HIV through sexual intercourse. There is no scientific doubt about its effectiveness, offering almost 100% protection if taken as instructed.
In the U.K., Public Health England announced in January that the annual number of HIV infections among gay and bisexual men had dropped by over 70% since 2012, partially attributable to a rise in the use of PrEP. In the U.S., the department of health recently launched a program to make PrEP available for free to uninsured people as part of President Donald Trump’s “Ending the HIV Epidemic” initiative.
However, its availability, accessibility and level of awareness are still limited in many Asian countries, despite proof that it works and the consequent savings to health care systems from treating fewer HIV-positive patients.
On top of a lack of comprehensive sexual education in the region, prevention can be expensive: In South Korea, where new HIV infections have not fallen since 2013, a one-month supply of Truvada, the branded PrEP drug produced by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences, will set you back around $350.
There are also cultural obstacles. PrEP’s connection with HIV means it is automatically associated with homosexuality, often by conservative or religious circles. While attitudes are slowly changing across the region, the subject in many parts of Asia is still considered taboo, if not sinful. In South Korea, for instance, the powerful Christian lobby claims that “encouraging” homosexuality will spread AIDS and waste taxpayer money on medical treatment.