Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: AIDS Threat Still Looming

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jul 29 2008 (IPS) - The HIV/AIDS epidemic remains stable in Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly affecting high-risk groups like gay men and sex workers, according to the UNAIDS report for 2008, released Tuesday.

Last year, 140,000 new infections were reported in the region, bringing the total number of people living with HIV to 1.7 million, while 63,000 people died of AIDS-related causes in 2007.

César Núñez, UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) director for Latin America, said at the presentation of the report that “this is not a small, controlled epidemic,” and recommended heavy emphasis on prevention measures.

The U.N. agency’s 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic identifies Brazil and Mexico (Latin America’s most populous countries) as having the largest number of cases: 800,000 and 200,000, respectively.

It also reports that the Central American and Caribbean regions have been hard-hit by the pandemic. In the Caribbean, where 20,000 new cases were reported and 14,000 people died of AIDS in 2007, there are 230,000 people living with HIV.

A majority of the 33 million people testing positive for HIV worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the study presented simultaneously in Mexico City, New York, Geneva, Johannesburg and Bangkok just ahead of the 17th International AIDS Conference, to take place Aug. 3-8 in the Mexican capital.

The “AIDS 2008” conference is expected to draw 25,000 delegates from national and international bodies, experts and activists from 150 nations.

The Latin America section of the UNAIDS study says unprotected sex is common among men who have sex with other men in Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

It also warns that in countries like Bolivia and Peru, the spread of HIV is linked to the practice of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use without precautions.

In addition, the report points to a feminisation of the epidemic. “We have seen that the number of infected women has gone up in recent years, and we will see this to an even greater extent in the future,” said Núñez.

More than 30 percent of people living with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean are women. In Mexico alone, 40,000 women test positive for the AIDS virus.

“The visibility of the epidemic must be raised among women, in order to promote safe, protected sexual practices,” said Linda Adechar, head of the non-governmental Fundación Vihdha.

Tuberculosis is still the biggest killer of people with HIV/AIDS. “The disease remains the main cause of mortality among vulnerable groups,” said Philippe Lamy, the Pan-American Health Organisation’s representative in Mexico.

Núñez underscored the significant increase in prevention efforts and treatment in Latin America, where 390,000 people now receive antiretroviral medications.

However, 630,000 people in the region still lack access to the life-extending drugs, he said.

“The number of people receiving antiretroviral therapy has increased,” said the UNAIDS official, who also stressed the importance of prevention.

“Measures like blood tests and increased use of condoms have provided an encouraging response,” said Mauricio Hernández, deputy minister of prevention in Mexico’s health ministry.

The fight against HIV/AIDS has faced hurdles from the start because of stigma, discrimination, homophobia and ignorance.

A study of seven Latin American countries, sponsored by Brazil’s International Centre for Technical Cooperation on HIV/AIDS (ICTC) and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), noted that, despite more and better government policies and laws, discrimination against people living with HIV and high-risk groups remains a major challenge.

The report, which was coordinated by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and will be presented at next week’s conference in Mexico, says that one of the biggest efforts that countries must make to fight HIV/AIDS is to achieve social equality for vulnerable groups like gay men and prostitutes.

The study, to which IPS had access, notes that practically all of the constitutions in the region mention the right to non-discrimination, but without referring to people living with HIV or to members of the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

Labour is one of the most problematic areas, since that is where laws that guarantee the right to non-discrimination are systematically flouted, a phenomenon that is hidden because of reforms that have ushered in more flexible labour relations and the difficulties in proving that someone was fired because of discrimination, says the report, which focused on Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru.

“In the case of HIV, discrimination is still very strong, because of prejudice and misinformation about how it is spread,” José Aguilar, national coordinator of the Mexico City-based Democracy and Sexuality network, told IPS.

A National Survey on Discrimination carried out in 2005 showed that the two groups who feel the worst discrimination in Mexico are the disabled and homosexuals.

On average, nine out of 10 women, disabled persons, indigenous people, homosexuals, elderly persons and members of religious minorities responded that they have faced discrimination. In addition, one out of three people belonging to these groups say they have suffered discrimination at work.

Alejandra Gil, president of the Asociación en Pro Apoyo a Servidores, which provides support for sex workers in the Mexican capital, told IPS that the growing visibility of high-risk groups can help combat the stigma and discrimination.

Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru have multidisciplinary agencies to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is not the case in Argentina and Chile. But all of the countries studied have national action plans to tackle the problem.

The researchers found gaps and contradictions in laws on the right to non-discrimination in the countries studied.

While on one hand, governments try to combat the stigmatisation of people living with HIV, on the other they have laws and institutions that are themselves discriminatory against groups that are vulnerable to the disease, says the document.

“Stigma and discrimination are still major factors,” said Núñez.

The FLACSO study found that while legislation in the region generally prohibits labour discrimination, such laws are usually not enforced.

“We need work places free of stigma and discrimination,” said Adechar.

A study by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which will also be presented at the Mexico City conference, concluded that even though organisations fighting the epidemic in 10 Latin American nations have gained visibility and political influence, they have more limited financial resources for carrying out their projects.

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