Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO-HEALTH: The High Cost of Sex Tourism

Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 24 1997 (IPS) - Tobago, that picturesque, northern- easterly portion of the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, is fast realising that sex — the fourth dimension of the tourism industry that sells sun, sea and sand — bears a terribly high price tag.

Tourism and promiscuity are being blamed by health experts for the fast rising incidence of the dreaded Acquired Immmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in Tobago, an island that has begun to establish itself as an alternative to traditional tourist destinations in the Caribbean.

Despite the high rate of HIV infection in its sister island of Trinidad, Tobago was long spared the scourge of AIDS. Whereas Tobago had only a few cases of infection prior to 1990, in Trinidad, AIDS was already the third ranking cause of death for men between the ages of 15 and 24 years and the second ranking cause of death for men in the age group 25 to 34 years.

Now, at least one person in all but one of the villages in Tobago, has tested positive for the HIV virus. Between 1990 and 1996, 218 persons, most of them male, tested positive for the virus, with 91 deaths within this period. These statistics show only part of the picture. Not included in the official figures are those people who choose to be tested in private laboratories or in Trinidad.

These revelations were made at a recent conference on Youth, Family Life, Mental Health and AIDS, convened after the death of a 14 year old HIV infected girl who confessed to having had sexual relations with more than 30 men between the ages of 19 and 29.

Dr. Mentor Melville, County Medical Officer of Health, directly attributes the dramatic increase in HIV infection in the island to the advent of sex tourism and the prostitution and pornography associated with it.

County Health Visitor, Margaret Wright, contends that the Tobago culture is at fault. She explains that it is normal for a Tobagonian man to have “two or three women” and rebukes older Tobagonians for blaming the spread of the disease on “obeah”, the local version of voodoo.

She also attributes a misguided sense of revenge for the epidemic. “There is also a certain class of people who go around telling you “somebody give mih, so I giving it back'” she says.

Sex tourism in Tobago mainly involves European and North American women and local men. The trade is run with business-like efficiency by “tourist agents” and unlisted guest houses, with advertisements in European magazines announcing “package deals” including the services of a local male or female.

In 1995, a Swiss visitor, known locally as “Simonetta”, was deported as an undesirable after announcing on the local television news that she was HIV positive and had engaged in unprotected sex with numerous local men.

Some of her partners flatly refused to believe her HIV status and rejected being tested themselves. Two years later, there is still no legislation specifically addressing HIV infection issues.

There are also female prostitutes, with a number of Trinidadian women taking up temporary residence in the island during the height of the winter tourist season.

Compared to Trinidad, the more industrially developed island, Tobago is a curious mixture of conservatism and sexual permissiveness.

In an economy where tourism is the only industry apart from the flagging farming and fishing sectors, virtually all shops remain closed on Sundays while workers attend church, or sea-side baptisms, for most of the morning.

In contrast, young people become sexually active at an early age. Men are expected to “have” more than one women at a time, and incest is common — some say rampant. Now that the virus has established a foothold in almost every village, these factors foretell disaster.

AIDS patients die quickly here. About 30 percent do not survive the first 12 months after diagnosis.

Though medical care is free at government run institutions, Tobago’s lone hospital does not have the financial resources to stock the drugs used for treatment of this fatal disease.

This situation is not expected to change with the availability of a new “cocktail” of AIDS drugs. The 10,000 to 15,000 dollars a year needed for treatment is far beyond the reach of almost all residents in this island, population just under 49,000.

Victims die quietly at home, kept away from the knowing eyes of those who visit the hospital almost every day to dispense comfort and kind words.

According to Melville, AIDS education is not working. He believes the only solution is behaviour modification among the population and he recommends a “Scared Straight” programme.

“They do not see the suffering,” he says. “They should see what full blown HIV patients look like and visually experience how they suffer.

Wright adds: “They only hear that an AIDS victim dies and its a nine-day wonder. We need to get the patient suffering to talk; only then more people might understand.”

For the moment, however, HIV infections are the last topic of discussion on the increasingly busy beaches of Tobago, observers say.

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