MEXICO CITY – HIV/AIDS activists and experts from around the world are urging Latin America to take swift action to prevent the outbreak of an AIDS epidemic on scale with the crisis affecting southern Africa.
Academy Award-winning singer and activist Annie Lennox called on Latin America to take advantage of this “golden window of opportunity” to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS before the epidemic reaches levels of infection comparable to Africa.
“This is not the time for complacency,” said the Scottish singer, one of thousands of panelists in this week’s 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. “Take action now, the time bomb is ticking.”
Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS and a keynote speaker at the opening ceremony to the conference, stresses that it’s “better to act now that pay later.”
Piot says that proactive measures are especially important in Central American countries such as Nicaragua, which appears to be in a privileged position due to its low prevalence rate of HIV infection.
In Nicaragua, the government claims that only 0.2 percent of the population, or some 3,300 Nicaraguans, is infected with the virus. As a result, the government doesn’t view the issue as a major health problem for the country and has not allocated any funding for any HIV/AIDS prevention or treatment programs.
“We’ve studied the budget and the Nicaraguan government has not dedicated a penny to HIV or AIDS,” said Ivo Rosales, a Nicaraguan rights activist who presented the “Nicaraguan report card” on HIV/AIDS. “The government says that the money for AIDS is ‘dispersed’ in other budget expenditures, but there are no specific programs for AIDS.”
Because Nicaragua doesn’t consider HIV/AIDS to be a problem, the government has no surveillance program to properly monitor the spread of HIV, which is thought to be seriously under-reported in Nicaragua.
The statistics are also contradictory. While the Nicaraguan government claims there are only 3,275 infected, non-governmental calculations put that number at two to five times higher.
By comparison, Costa Rica has 9,700 people infected with HIV, El Salvador has 35,000 reported infections, Honduras 28,000 and Guatemala 59,000, according to Web site globalhealthfacts.org.
While the overall prevalence rate in Central America is still below 1 percent – compared to Botswana’s more alarming 34 percent prevalence, or Swaziland’s 36 percent – the region should be considered vulnerable, experts warn.
“Nicaragua and Central America are vulnerable because of migration patters, inequality in access to health services and machismo and homophobia, which push (gay men) underground,” UNAIDS Piot told The Nica Times. “Just because HIV is not a problem today doesn’t mean it won’t be a problem tomorrow. Southern African countries are paying the price now for a lack of action in the past.”