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The Healthy Traveler

'Sex Tours' Can Be Risky Business

June 09, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY

When a Santa Monica businessman organizes tours to Thailand, he's straightforward about what his customers can expect. "I promise people sex is easy to come by and very available," said the man, whose tour packages include a Thai guide-interpreter who takes male tourists to bars.

Such business continues despite a global campaign against organized sex tours, particularly those involving children. Groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have rallied against organized sex tours, citing exploitation of children and the risk of spreading AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In Stockholm, Sweden this August, UNICEF will host the World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. More than a million children a year are forced into child prostitution, UNICEF estimates, at least some percentage to supply the tourist demand for sex. (It is a felony for a United States citizen traveling abroad to engage a minor in sex acts that are illegal here.)

Despite the cavalier attitude of sex tour operators, public health officials emphasize that abstinence or condom use are needed to stop the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases abroad. That advice applies not only to sex tour participants but to other travelers, a recent study suggests. Researchers at the University of Sydney found that many tourists traveling overseas without partners or spouses engage in casual sex or hope to do so.

Sex tour operators advertise in adult newspapers, adult magazines for men and on the Internet.

According to estimates by the World Health Organization, there have been an estimated 6 million cases of adult and pediatric AIDS worldwide from the late '70s to late 1995, the most recent figures. Some 16.9 million adults are HIV-positive, according to a 1995 WHO estimate. About 75% of AIDS cases are in Africa, 9% in the Americas (excluding the United States), 7% in the U.S., 5% in Asia, less than 4% in Europe and less than 1% in Oceania.

Certain destinations are riskier than others, statistics suggest. As of Dec. 15, 1995, Thailand--a popular sex tour destination--had 22,135 reported cases of AIDS, according to Veronika Bentos, a spokeswoman for the Pan American Health Organization, regional office for WHO. In addition to AIDS, there were 700,000 cases of adults in Thailand who were HIV-positive as of the end of 1994. (By comparison, WHO estimates there were 501,310 AIDS cases in the U.S. at the end of 1995 and that an estimated 700,000 adults were HIV positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number of HIV-positive adults and children at nearly 1 million in the U.S.)

Although Thailand is sometimes referred to as the sex capital of the world, other countries have more reported AIDS cases. For example, Kenya had 56,573 reported AIDS cases through April 1995; more than a million adults are HIV-positive. France had 38,372 AIDS cases and 90,000 HIV-positive adults. Spain had 34,618 AIDS cases and 120,000 HIV-positive adults. Italy has 30,447 AIDS cases and 90,000 HIV-positive adults. By comparison, the Philippines has 220 reported AIDS cases; Ireland, 491; Iceland, 37, and San Marino, 1.

The number of HIV-positive persons by country is estimated by evaluating studies done in each country, said Dr. Paloma Cuchi, spokeswoman for the Pan American Health Organization. Because many countries don't have comprehensive surveillance systems, the true number of cases is probably higher than the numbers officially reported, especially in nonindustrialized nations, according to the CDC.

Not everyone believes these figures. For example, a Ventura County home builder, who runs a small travel business, takes men to the Philippines twice a year. He charges $2,195 for the 13-day trip, including air, hotel, some meals and sightseeing. "My tours are adventure tours," he said. "But if these guys want to follow me to the bars. . . . "

When asked about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, he said, "The Philippines are on top of the situation. It's not that common to contact VD in the Philippines."

Cuchi of the Pan American Health Organization tells travelers to practice abstinence or to protect themselves to minimize the risk of contracting disease. "People have to understand they must avoid the exchange of bodily fluids," she said. "They can do that by abstaining or by using a barrier method such as condoms."

Within countries, certain locales are statistically riskier than others. "In port areas, the incidence of all sexually transmitted diseases is always high," Cuchi said. Areas of dense population are also riskier, she said. "Wherever there is mobility, there are higher incidences of STD."

Cuchi's advice can be valuable for all travelers, whether on an organized sex tour or not. In a study of 213 young adults traveling to Thailand without a partner or spouse, Brian Mulhall of the University of Sydney department of public health found that only 34% reported a definite intention not to have sex while in Thailand; 17% more men than women said they did plan to have sex while on the trip or hoped to do so. Men were more likely than women to say they would have sex with a "bar girl" or Thai national, according to the study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they would use condoms.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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