Let Half a Billion Condoms Bloom: Thailand's Mechai Thrives as the Barnum of Birth Control and Safe Sex

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's Condom Night in Khonkaen, a provincial capital amid the paddies and tapioca fields of northeast Thailand. Lampposts are festooned with pink, yellow and blue condom-balloons. Young men dressed in outlandish, head-to-toe cloth condom costumes wend their way through the evening traffic, distributing hundreds of prophylactics. At a nearby shopping plaza, giggling contestants line up for a condom-blowing competition. Orchestrating this high-spirited condomania is Mechai Viravaidya, 49, Thailand's P.T. Barnum of family planning and safe sex. "I want people to accept condoms the way they do toothpaste or soap," he says.

For all his showmanship, Mechai, a respected economist and member of the Thai parliament, is credited with spurring a dramatic slowdown in his nation's burdensome birthrate. As recently as the early 1970s, Thailand's 3.2 percent annual population growth rate was among the highest in Asia. Today, at 1.4 percent, it is one of the lowest. "Experts throughout the world recognize Mechai as one of the most charismatic and influential people in the field of family planning," says Dr. Allan Rosenfield, dean of Columbia University's School of Public Health.

The power of Mechai's message is its bluntness: "Too many children make you poor." What is unique about his program is a grass-roots approach that ties family planning to economic development by offering such incentives as free livestock and low-interest loans to villagers who practice birth control. In addition to promoting vasectomies and birth control pills, since 1974 Mechai has distributed as many as half a billion prophylactics to his 56 million countrymen—even supplying remote villages by airdrop and recruiting Buddhist monks to bless his contraceptives. For a Cops and Rubbers campaign in Bangkok, he had policemen hand out condoms to motorists stuck in traffic jams. The man and his work have become synonymous: Thai call condoms Mechais.

Founder and head of the nonprofit Population and Community Development Association, Mechai is now attacking a new scourge in the Land of Smile: AIDS. Thailand's packaged sex tours are as big a draw as its gilded temples, and for tourists and natives alike, that could be a potentially fatal attraction. Last year the AIDS-related HIV virus was found in 8 percent of prostitutes tested in Bangkok, and infection reportedly is much higher in outlying districts. Although there were 37 AIDS-related deaths officially reported in Thailand as of June, health-care workers claim the incidence is vastly underreported. Medical researchers predict that one in 50 Thai may be carrying the virus by 1995. "This is the biggest war Thailand has ever faced," says Mechai. His AIDS prevention program is regarded as a model for other countries—including the U.S.

On a tour of the canals of Bangkok with Barber Conable, president of the World Bank, which has funded development projects in Thailand, Mechai hands out condoms and AIDS pamphlets to floating-market vendors and families in the stilt-raised homes along the shore. "It's no use lending money to Thailand if AIDS is going to wipe us out," he tells Conable. At night Mechai makes the rounds in Patpong, Bangkok's neon-lit flesh strip of massage parlors, brothels and live-sex shows. Inside bars named Love Boat a Go-Go and Goldfinger, dancers in G-strings reach down from their catwalks to scoop up proffered condoms. "To combat AIDS you have to change people's behavior," Mechai says. "The only thing doctors can do is help you die more comfortably."

Growing up in Bangkok, Mechai was imbued with a sense of noblesse oblige by his Scottish mother and Thai father, both prominent physicians who believed it was their social obligation to help the poor. After earning a degree in economics from the University of Melbourne in 1965, Mechai took a government job in Bangkok evaluating development programs. "What hit me was that there was no way schools and doctors could keep up with the birthrate," he says. Borrowing money from relatives and friends, he established his population-control association in 1974. Today the organization is funded by various international-development agencies, private industry and such groups as the MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Initially Mechai's antics were a source of embarrassment to his family. "Having babies was a personal thing, and it was unheard of for someone to talk about birth control in public," says Mechai's wife, Putrie, a great-grandaughter of King Rama IV, the monarch immortalized in the musical The King and I. But Putrie and their daughter. Sujima, 14, were eventually won over by Mechai's good humor and single-minded persistence, and both wholeheartedly endorse his condom crusade.

During a visit to the remote hamlet of Tung Mon, Mechai is greeted by a chorus of kindergarten children, clenched fists raised, chanting, "We fight AIDS."

"How do you prevent AIDS?" Mechai asks. "With a condom!" the kids shout in unison. A few minutes later, a man tugs at his sleeve and politely asks, "Mechai, what will happen if you get AIDS?" With a wink and a shrug, Mechai replies, "Does the snake charmer get bitten by the snake?"

David Grogan, Civia Tamarkin in Thailand

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