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Forum examines HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean

By La Risa Lynch | Last updated: Jun 21, 2012 - 5:22:06 PM

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Chicago AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton (left) speaks at a panel on the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Caribbean. Also seated are Dr. Susan Lowe, Marixta Vidal; Professor Monique Germain and Ricardo Jimenez. Photo: La Risa Lynch

CHICAGO - While many Caribbean nations and even the United States struggle to get a handle on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Cuba seemingly has the disease under control, and now has one of the lowest HIV/AIDS infection rates.

When the first symptoms of HIV/AIDS appeared on that island nation in 1983, the Cuban government saw the disease as a public health crisis and took drastic, sometimes unorthodox steps, to curtail the disease spread.

Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro ordered all donated blood destroyed and then mandated a quarantine of all those infected with the disease while providing free medical care.

Now individuals diagnosed with the disease are placed in treatment within 24 hours, said Marixta Vidal, director of outreach at VIDA/SIDA, a Chicago-based organization that specifically serves Latinos impacted by HIV/AIDS.

“It seems that it’s working,” said Ms. Vidal, who is Cuban.

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Statistics show that in 2009, an estimated 240,000 people were living with HIV in the Caribbean. Some 17,000 were newly-infected during 2009, and 12,000 people died from AIDS, according to international charity AVERT, based in the United Kingdom.
In the last 30 years, Ms. Vidal noted that Cuba, which mirrors New York in size, only had 2,300 people died from the disease compared to New York’s 78,000 during the same time period.

“Why because of the aggressive treatment (and) the linkages to care that is given immediately,” Ms. Vidal said. “Even though a lot of people don’t agree with the political views of Cuba … people should agree on health issues. This is a health issue. A country should worry about giving the best possible health care to its citizens, regardless of political views.”

Ms. Vidal was among a panel of experts examining HIV/AIDS’ impact on the Caribbean during a June town hall meeting. Gender bias, cultural stigmas and religious intolerance hamper the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, said the panelists who hailed from Jamaica, Haiti and Puerto Rico.

Statistics show that in 2009, an estimated 240,000 people were living with HIV in the Caribbean. Some 17,000 were newly-infected during 2009, and 12,000 people died from AIDS, according to international charity AVERT, based in the United Kingdom.

After sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean has a higher HIV prevalence than any other area of the world, with one percent of the adult population infected. The infection rate of Cuba is 0.1 percent, Jamaica, 1.7 percent, Haiti, 1.9 percent and Bahamas, 3.1 percent, according to AVERT’s website.

While Cuba may be a prime example of a government’s quick response to the disease, Haiti is just the opposite.

Haiti had already struggled to get exact figures of those infected by the disease. But the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 100,000 and left scores homeless living in makeshift tent cities in the capital of Port Au Prince, compounded the situation, said Monique Jean-Bart Germain, a professor of nursing at Universite Episcopale d’Haiti.

With people living in tents and dispersed throughout the city, Ms. Germain said there is no way to tell if people with the disease are getting treatment. Exacerbating the issue is people engaging in unprotected sex in the tent cities, she said. That has resulted in an unprecedented rise in childbirths, but Ms. Germain said there is no way to tell if these children are HIV infected until symptoms appear.

Puerto Rico and Jamaica share a common problem. Both countries have high HIV infection rates among the men who have sex with men (MSM) population. In Puerto Rico, the infection rates stem from intravenous drug use among both men and women, said Ricardo Jimenez, co-founder of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Mr. Jimenez explained men who are drug users sell themselves to other men to feed their drug addiction. This creates a vicious cycle since these men, who deny their sexuality because homosexuality is perceived as wrong, still have relations with women.

“Today women in Puerto Rico have extremely high HIV rates along with men,” Mr. Jimenez said.

In Jamaica HIV infection rates are increasing in women, said Dr. Susan Lowe, who is in private practice in Jamaica and in Florida. She noted a lot of men in Jamaica are bi-sexual or MSM. That poses a problem since the ratio of women to men is seven to one.

She noted more must be done to reach these women who have relationships with MSM, to teach them safe sex practices. While HIV rates are high among men (650.8 per 100,000), Dr. Lowe said women (474.8 per 100,000) are gaining ground.

“If we don’t address heterosexual women very soon we are in a doggone (mess),” Dr. Lowe said.

America fairs no better in addressing HIV/AIDS especially among Blacks, said HIV/AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton, who has been living with AIDS for 20 years.

Annually, she said, the U.S. has 30,000 new cases of HIV with the majority of those in the MSM population. But Blacks by far are still disproportionately affected by the disease.

Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but 52 percent of HIV/AIDS cases. The biggest victim of this epidemic is Black women, Ms. Lewis-Thornton said.

Hindering treatment in the Black HIV/AIDS community is disparity of funding, which Ms. Lewis-Thornton said, often goes to gay White organizations.

“Everybody else is left to scramble and fight for what’s left over,” she said. “So we are not able to tackle this community.”

Panelists all agreed that HIV/AIDS education and prevention efforts targeted at high-risk population such as MSM and women is a must. But they all contend government ineptitude and religious intolerance belabors those efforts.

Religious institutions in Jamaica and Haiti have decried providing safe sex education to school children as promoting promiscuity. Churches in Puerto Rico have blocked efforts to teach condom usage in schools.

“Today kids are having sex, not at 18, 19, 17, but at 12; 13-years-old,” Mr. Jimenez said. “We have to get to our youth if we are going to save our nation.”

That is not the case in Cuba, Ms. Vidal said, noting that her country broke with the Catholic Church under Fidel Castro. That freedom has allowed Cuba to have more aggressive safe sex education in schools, she said.

Organizers held the town hall to create a dialogue on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean, which has been a taboo subject, said Autumn Smith, spokesperson for the Caribbean Association of Midwest America, the event’s co-convener.

“This has been something that our community has been struggling for years,” Ms. Smith said. “We wanted to let people know that there are resources out there for them and that people in their home islands are doing things trying to combat this.”

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