HIV/AIDS cases continue upward climb in Caribbean By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
Guyana Chronicle
December 1, 2001

`Research among sex workers in Guyana's capital, Georgetown, has found that 46 per cent of surveyed sex workers were living with HIV/AIDS, that more than one-third of them never used a condom with their regular partners. The probability of the virus passing into the wider population is therefore high'

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, (CMC) - HIV/AIDS cases in the Caribbean continued an upward climb and by the end of 2001, it is estimated that 420,000 people would be infected.

For the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 1.8 million were living with HIV/AIDS including 190,000 adults and children who became infected this year.

The figures were revealed in the AIDS epidemic update for December 2001 by UNAIDS.

According to the update, some 1.4 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in Latin America and 420 000 in the Caribbean.

In Central America and the Caribbean, HIV is mainly heterosexually transmitted, with unsafe sex and frequent partner exchange among young people high among the factors driving the epidemic.

Other powerful dynamics are abetting the spread of HIV, notably the combination of socioeconomic pressures and high population mobility (including tourism).

According to the update, the Caribbean is the second-most affected region in the world, with adult HIV prevalence rates only exceeded by those of sub-Saharan Africa.

In several Caribbean countries, HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death. Worst affected are Haiti and the Bahamas, where adult HIV prevalence rates are above four per cent. But the epidemic is by no means concentrated only in the Caribbean.

Along with Barbados and the Dominican Republic, several Central American and Caribbean countries had adult HIV prevalence rates of at least one per cent at the end of 1999, including Belize, Guyana, Honduras, Panama and Suriname. By contrast, prevalence is lowest in Bolivia, Ecuador and other Andean countries.

Almost three-quarters of AIDS cases reported in Central America are the result of sex between men and women.

On some Caribbean islands, the phenomenon of young women having sex with older men is especially prominent, and is reflected in the fact that the HIV rate among girls aged 15-19 is up to five times that of boys in the same age group.

Research among sex workers in Guyana's capital, Georgetown, has found that 46 per cent of surveyed sex workers were living with HIV/AIDS, that more than one-third of them never used a condom with their regular partners. The probability of the virus passing into the wider population is therefore high.

In Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and parts of the Andean region, sex between men is the more prominent route of HIV transmission. Recent studies among men who have sex with men in Mexico have shown that just over 14 per cent were HIV-positive.

The report said prevalence rates among heterosexual sex workers and sexually transmitted infection patients in Mexico, meanwhile, appear still to be low. Injecting drug use is a main route of HIV transmission in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and plays a major role in Brazil.

Patterns of transmission can also differ markedly within countries, a reminder that universal national programmes are inappropriate. In Colombia's highlands, for instance, unprotected sex between men accounts for most HIV infections, while, on the coast, heterosexual intercourse is the main route of transmission.

The report also found that commitment by countries to stem the epidemic and limit its effects has grown markedly. Several countries have launched or are developing government programmes to distribute antiretroviral drugs to HIV/AIDS patients.

But there are wide disparities in the quality and scope of different countries' antiretroviral treatment programmes.

The wide access to treatment that people living with HIV/AIDS have in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay is not yet matched in most other countries of the Americas. Up to recently, Central America experienced a large gap in access to treatment.

Now, however, countries such as Costa Rica and Panama are providing treatment access. Caribbean countries are developing a regional strategy to speed up and expand access to treatment and care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Countries such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago are preparing to implement new national programmes.

In Brazil, a substantial decline in HIV prevalence among injecting drug users has been observed recently in several large metropolitan areas.

This suggests that HIV/AIDS prevention and harm reduction programmes in those cities have made possible safer injection habits among these populations.

Brazil's prevention efforts are being balanced with an extensive treatment and care programme that guarantees state-funded antiretroviral therapy for those living with HIV/AIDS.

The number of people living with the virus in Brazil, according to the country's Health Ministry is up from 540,000 in 1999. An estimated 105,000 Brazilians are receiving antiretroviral drugs through the public health system.

A new political resolve is also apparent in several regional initiatives.

Launched in February 2001, the Pan-Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS, for instance, links the resources of governments and the international community with those of civil society to boost national and regional responses.

It is being coordinated by the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM).

Caribbean Heads of Government are also devising ways to support each other's national HIV/AIDS programmes and jointly negotiate affordable prices for antiretroviral drugs.

Meanwhile, protecting vulnerable populations on the move is now the focus of a regional initiative in Central America.

Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay are collaborating in harm-reduction schemes for injecting drugs users. National AIDS programmes have also joined a collaborative scheme to share technical assistance throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Known as the Horizontal Technical Cooperation Group, it brings together more than 20 countries of the region.