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Caribbean AIDS Explosion Examined

February 26, 2000

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ It was a meeting to express solidarity with AIDS victims, and not a single AIDS victim showed up.

At the most far-reaching AIDS event ever organized in the Caribbean _ with simultaneous meetings on five islands _ the nearly empty hotel conference room in Charlotte Amalie was a stark reminder of exactly what organizers want to end: the denial and stigmatization of AIDS.

``That’s what we’re talking about: denial _ the fear of being ‘outed’ with AIDS,″ said Dale Garee, 54, a Virgin Islander who has lost friends and relatives to the disease. ``There’s a whole concept here: That these people choose this and they deserve to get AIDS.″

He was among five people _ none of them suffering from the disease or the HIV virus _ who turned up at the ``affinity″ meeting for AIDS victims _ one of the last events at the two-day conference organized by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in hopes of stirring debate and awareness about the long-taboo subject.

Peggy McEvoy, the top United Nations official on AIDS in the Caribbean, said the number infected with the HIV virus in the region likely exceeds 500,000 and could reach 700,000 _ double the previously reported figure.

``It is definitely an epidemic, and in the Caribbean we have the second largest (infection) incidence in the world after Africa,″ she said.

Some 2,300 health officials, AIDS activists and victims met here and in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and the Bahamas as part of the conference, which was a high-profile departure for a region unused to open talk of sex and its consequences.

Experts at the conference called for government action to improve reporting and treatment _ as well as changing societal factors from homophobia to ignorance that help spread the disease and deepen the suffering it causes.

A pastor at the failed affinity meeting acknowledged that many islanders, including relatives, would cut ties with an AIDS victim due to unfounded fears of contracting the incurable disease by being touched, scratched, breathed on, or even sharing a swimming pool.

Baptist Rev. Will Woods said that while no members of his congregation had admitted to having AIDS, he knew some did.

``The community is so small,″ said the conservatively dressed cleric. ``If someone who was married said he had AIDS, everyone would think he was fooling around, or homosexual or taking drugs through a needle.″

Some of that might even be true: experts at the conference cited infidelity by men who don’t use condoms as a key factor in the growing spread of AIDS to women in the Caribbean. They also cited chauvinistic attitudes that approved of male infidelity and homophobia that encouraged homosexuals to marry women while hiding their male love relationships.

``Married women (here) don’t have the negotiating power within a marriage to insist on a condom,″ said McEvoy, Team Leader for the Caribbean program for Geneva-based UNAIDS, which handles AIDS policy issues, education and research. ``Their husbands would kick them out.″

A third of reported AIDS cases in the Caribbean are among women and the percentage seems likely to grow, according to the Ministry of Health in Trinidad and Tobago. It reported last year that seven out of eight youths being infected between the ages of 10 and 19 are female.

Sex tourism, fueled in part by poverty, was seen as another major factor.

``The islands with tourism are the ones that don’t want to talk about it very much,″ McEvoy said. ``There’s a tremendous amount of sexual activity involved with tourism. There’s a lot of fear that if tourists are aware they’re not going to come.″

One dire statistic presented _ from a survey of nearly 9,000 schoolchildren in four English-speaking Caribbean islands _ has 42 percent experiencing sex before the age of 10. The figure rises to 62 percent by age 12. That survey, conducted by the Washington-based Organization of American States’ Pan American Health Organization, could reflect a high rate of child molestation.

One AIDS patient who attended the conference in Jamaica said the first step to prevention was eradicating unfounded fears.

``The fear in most quarters is very unrealistic: the belief that it is transmitted by kissing, touching, by just sharing a bed,″ said Ainsley Reid, director of the support group Jamaica Network of Seropositives.

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