An HIV Emergency in a Tropical Paradise

The popular tourist destination of Belize has the highest per capita rate of HIV infection in Central America. Health officials there are struggling to educate the population on the dangers of infection. Kenny Goldberg of member station KPBS reports.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. The tiny Central American country of Belize is famous for its exotic beachfront resorts. What is less well known is that Belize has the highest HIV infection rate in the region, and health officials there are struggling to change that. Kenny Goldberg, of member station KPBS, has the report.

Mr. KENNY GOLDBERG (Reporter, KPBS): In the lush interior of Belize, just off the side of a dirt road, lies a one bedroom shack with a tin roof. Thirty-nine-year-old Lydia Spane(ph) lives here. She used to be a prostitute on the streets of Belize City. Today Spane is broke and has HIV. She recently got out of prison, where she says being HIV positive was rough.

Ms. LYDIA SPANE (HIV Positive): I wanted to commit suicide about three times, because the people in the prison used to discriminate us and they put us in a cell apart from others and so we have to bathe in our cell and it was hard for us.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Spane now lives alone and is unemployed. She's getting free treatment from the Belizean government. The World Health Organization says Spane is one of an estimated 5300 Belizeans who are living with HIV. In this small country that represents nearly 2 1/2 percent of the adult population. That's nearly double the per capita HIV infection rate of neighboring Guatemala. And eight times the rate in Mexico.

Dr. Paul Edwards is the director of HIV-AIDS programs for the Belizean Ministry of Health.

Dr. PAUL EDWARDS (Director, HIV/AIDS programs): Most Belizeans have heard about HIV-AIDS. They are cognizant of the scientific transmission of this disease, however incorporating that knowledge into their sexual activity, that is a challenge.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Dr. Edwards says Belizeans tend to be promiscuous, especially young people.

Dr. EDWARDS: A survey that was done in 1999 demonstrated that most high schoolers, almost 90 percent or a little bit more, had engaged in sexual activity that was consensual, and more than 90 percent did not use any method of contraception or prevention or such.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Edwards says there are other factors that contribute to the high HIV rate in Belize. For one, health officials say it's almost a rite of passage for young Belizean males to go over to Guatemala and have sex with prostitutes.

They cross here at the Benque Viejo border crossing. Fernando Romero is a local resident. He claims Belizeans know about the risks of getting HIV from prostitutes and bringing it back here.

Mr. FERNANDO ROMERO (Belize Resident): Well, we are aware, but we are careless. That's the word we would use, you know, because sometimes you just go there and we do not protect ourselves the right way. Then we come across here, back to Belize, and there is where we start all over, you know, and we go with our girlfriends.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Efforts are underway to educate young Belizeans about HIV prevention. These include condom use, despite the fact that Belize is a predominantly Catholic country.

Ms. CHERENE VALERIO: What is HIV? HIV, as Cathy mentioned, is a virus. It only lives in a human host.

Mr. GOLDBERG: In the town of San Ignacio, Cherene Valerio with the Belize Red Cross talks with a group of local teenagers about HIV. Valerio argues kids aren't the only ones that need to hear this information.

Ms. VALERIO: Because this is not a fight for just young people. It's a fight for all the people who are involved with the changes, the decision making, and the life that we live in our country.

Mr. GOLDBERG: There has been some good news recently. There's been fewer than anticipated new cases of HIV. However, health officials admit these figures are somewhat hazy. That's because most Belizeans are reluctant to get tested for the virus. In a small country where most people know their neighbors, Belizeans have a hard time believing that test results remain confidential. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Goldberg.

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