RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Latin America and the Caribbean are
facing a growing AIDS epidemic and must
tackle controversial issues like gay sex and condom use if they
are going to stop its spread, the United Nations web
"The recognition that Latin America, with the exception of
Brazil, is facing a growing AIDS crisis is just not there,"
U.N. AIDS executive director Peter Piot told reporters before a
regional AIDS conference opens later Monday. "And the response
is absolutely insufficient."
The Caribbean suffers from the world's second highest rate of
HIV infection after sub-Saharan Africa, with 5 percent of
adults in Haiti and over 4 percent in the Bahamas living with
the virus. Many Latin American communities are not far behind.
The incidence of the virus among gays throughout Latin America
is particularly high, for example. "The risk of eventually
dying from AIDS is well over 50 percent in some of the
communities...It's unacceptable," Piot said.
Rio de Janeiro is hosting a five-day forum on AIDS in Latin
America and the Caribbean that will focus on prevention and
treatment policies. Some 1.6 million people have the HIV virus
in the region and about 600 new people are
infected every day.
While Brazil has become a leader in the fight against AIDS with
a free drug distribution program and condom ads that address
everything from the unbridled Carnival festival to gay
relationships, the rest of the region has chosen to turn a
blind eye, Piot said.
He pointed to the fact that in most countries in the region,
less than $50,000 a year is spent on prevention targeted at gay
communities. "It's a joke. It doesn't reflect the size of the
epidemic in those communities."
Another stumbling block for AIDS programs in the region has
been religion. While Roman Catholic countries like Spain, Italy
and Piot's own Belgium have found ways to promote condom use,
more conservative Latin American nations have allowed the
church to stand in the way.
"In Latin America perhaps more than any other region in the
world, the use of condoms as a life saving tool is
controversial," he said. Still, Piot emphasized that the
church has had different responses in different communities and
has tended to be more supportive on a local basis.
In sum, the U.N. leader said the region has to recognize that
AIDS is a growing crisis and really apply resources where they
are needed. He pointed to Brazil as an example for the region
and the world.
Latin America's biggest country, which had one of the highest
HIV rates in the world in 1985, openly tackled the crisis,
working closely with nongovernmental organizations and local
officials to decide where funding would best be applied.
Despite dire predictions, HIV infection has leveled off at
between 0.5 percent and 0.6 percent of Brazil's adults. The
country has also challenged giant drug companies by starting to
manufacture AIDS drugs at a fraction the cost. Foreign
competitors have had to lower prices on the antiretroviral
drugs used in AIDS cocktails by more than 70 percent.
Piot urged other countries to follow Brazil's example in
effective prevention programs and said U.N. AIDS is working
with governments and other agencies to try and negotiate bulk
purchases of drugs for the region that would help push drug
prices down to Brazil levels.