BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, part two of our report on AIDS -- today, the situation in Thailand, the most successful of all the developing countries in bringing down HIV infections. One reason is the support of Buddhist monks for the government's anti-HIV campaign. Monks also run a hospice for those dying of AIDS and -- as a matter of public education -- encourage tourists to come visit. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports:
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many Buddhist temples are tourist attractions in Thailand. But this one, tucked away in the hills north of Bangkok is unusual. It was built a decade ago not as a traditional place of worship but as a hospice. A place where AIDS patients come to die with dignity.
There are about 300 beds here, a fraction of the demand. But there seems no limit to the number of tourists who come through to meet and take pictures near AIDS patients -- to view the stark crematory and bone room, where the bones and ashes of thousands of patients lie in piles, and the after-death room, a macabre display that more befits a pathology museum.
In fact tourist donations sustain this facility, not government funds. And the founding monk says it helps sensitize adults to the AIDS problem. Even school kids arrive daily by the busload.
Abbot PHRA ALONGKOT DIKKAPANYO (Wat Prabt Nam Phu Monastery): Our people -- if they can see by themself, not only listen or look at the picture, they can understand easily, and it is a good way of education in our country.
DE SAM LAZARO: Thailand has long been in the vanguard in tackling AIDS. It was the first Asian country to suffer an epidemic, stemming from another enduring tourist attraction: the commercial sex trade, which caters both to Thai and foreign tourists.
When AIDS hit in the early 90s, Thailand had a quick response. Not so much with money or health services, but with its already highly successful family planning program, it had popularized one of the most effective weapons in AIDS prevention: the condom. The program was headed by Mechai Viravaidya, politician from a prominent Thai family; economist by training but best known as the condom king.
MECHAI VIRAVAIDYA (Head, Population and Development Authority): Look, it's just from a rubber tree like a tennis ball. If you're embarrassed by a condom you must be more embarrassed by a tennis ball. There's more rubber in it. We gave them out all over, and said, "Look the condom is clean if your mind is not dirty, so please take one."
DE SAM LAZARO: Early on, Viravaidya took his case to monasteries and monks because surveys showed they were the most influential people, particularly in rural areas of this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million. The monks were supportive.
Mr. VIRAVAIDYA: And in the Buddhist scriptures it said many births cause suffering, so Buddhism is not against family planning. And we even ended up with monks sprinkling holy water on pills and condoms for the sanctity of the family, before shipments went out into the villages.
DE SAM LAZARO: The condom and AIDS information campaign is widely credited with a dramatic drop in the number of HIV infections, from about 140,000 a year in 1990 to about 30,000, ten years later.
Fewer Thai men visit brothels and 90 percent of those who do now use condoms.
But hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, Thailand cut back funds to its AIDS campaign. That's blamed for an increase in infections among certain populations, including young pregnant women. Viravaidya says the message just isn't getting through to them effectively.