Asia is overtaking Africa as the continent most devasted by the deadly disease.
At the Palace discotheque in Hanoi, young men and women dance expertly under flashing lights, gyrating to a Donna Summer song and other dated American tunes. At first glance, it looks innocent enough. But looks can be deceiving. Many of the girls are commercial sex workers.
While prostitution is nothing new to Vietnam, especially the pre-1975 South, the social transformation under way in the country has brought a deadly and quickly growing threat: AIDS. In an eerie echo of what occurred in Thailand, Vietnam has gone from a single known case of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in December 1990, to 1,000 new cases reported last year. By 1998, 570,000 of Vietnam's 72 million people could be infected, according to the government's national plan for AIDS prevention.
The Manila-based Asian Development Bank reported in April that Asia is overtaking Africa as the epicenter of the AIDS plague. India and Thailand have been hit hardest. The report noted that the low status of women in Asia makes them particularly vulnerable to AIDS.
"Some people see Vietnam as one of the last places that's relatively free of AIDS," says Don Luce, president of International Voluntary Services. That encourages, really, sex tourism." The nonprofit organization attempts to aid and educate Vietnamese sex workers, in cooperation with the Vietnam Women's Union. "I think we can slow the rate [of spread'" says Luce. "But we can't keep AIDS from being a very serious problem in Vietnam."
Vietnam at first pigeonholed AIDS as a "foreigner's" problem. Only prostitutes and drug addicts, who can pass the virus via infected needles, were tested. Often they were rounded up, driving the problem underground. But in December 1993, the government separated its AIDS prevention and control programs from those aimed at stamping out prostitution and drug use. …