AFP: Gay festival may be behind HIV surge in Singapore: Minister

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Wed Mar 9, 7:05 AM ET

SINGAPORE (AFP) - One of Asia's most popular gay and lesbian festivals may be behind a sharp rise in the number of new HIV infections in Singapore, a government minister told parliament.

Senior Minister of State for Health, Balaji Sadasivan, cited an unnamed medical expert's opinion that the Nation festival, which attracts thousands of revellers from around the region each August, is a possible cause for the rise.

"We do not know the reasons for the sharp increase of HIV in the gay community," Balaji said, as quoted by local radio station NewsRadio 93.8.

"An epidemiologist has suggested that this may be linked to the annual predominantly gay party in Sentosa, the Nation party, which allows gays from high prevalence societies to fraternise with local gay men, seeding the infection in the local community.

"However, this is an hypothesis and more research needs to be done by the experts."

Balaji told parliament that a record 311 people in Singapore had contracted HIV last year, 28 percent more than in 2003.

He said 90 percent of the people who contracted the virus last year were men, with a third of them gay.

There are now more than 2,000 HIV or AIDS confirmed patients in Singapore., which bills itself as Asia's largest website for gays, has hosted the increasingly popular Nation festival on the Sentosa resort island since 2001. More than 8,000 people attended last year's edition. chief executive Stuart Koe reacted angrily to Balaji's comments. He said they would fuel homophobia in Singapore and he blamed inaction by the government as the main driver of the increase in HIV among gays.

"The government has failed to address the issue of MSMs (men having sex with men) in any of their public health campaigns," Koe told AFP, adding that the prohibition on homosexual acts in Singapore was also a major problem.

"Because gay sex is illegal, many of the public health agencies in Singapore aren't even available to work with MSM groups."

"These statements serve to fuel homophobia and discrimination in this country."

The government's hands-off approach to the Nation festival had helped build Singapore's reputation over recent years as one of Asia's premier gay tourism hubs, despite gay acts being illegal.

However, the government late last year signalled it was rethinking its stance on gay parties when it banned's planned all-night "Snowball.04" party that was scheduled to start on Christmas Day.

It cited incidents at the Nation parties for its banning of the Christmas event, which it said would be "against the moral values" of most Singaporeans.

Among measures to fight AIDS, Balaji said over-the-counter test kits that require only saliva samples may be made available, while the government was also considering making HIV testing for pregnant mothers compulsory.