Mexico Tackles AIDS Discrimination

Mexico has one of the lowest rates of HIV infections in Latin America: 0.3 percent. It has taken root among people who live on the margins of society and are often discriminated against. The government is launching a campaign to reduce discrimination.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Around the globe, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is playing out differently depending on the continent, country and culture. In Southern Africa, the virus has spread throughout the general population. In North America, it's concentrated in homosexual men. Not so in Europe, where it's thriving predominantly among heterosexuals. In Russia, intravenous drug users have been hardest hit.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico, where HIV is primarily affecting sex workers and men who have sex with men.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Prostitution is legal in Mexico. Just after dark, on Avenue Hidalgo in Mexico City, women in short skirts and tall heels wave at the traffic against the darkened sidewalks. Fluorescent tank tops, flashes of cleavage, rouge and glitter beckon to customers in the passing cars.

Jaime Carmen Pena(ph), a health educator with Population Services International, is chatting with two women near the Revolucion Metro Station; behind them is a row of hotels that rent by the hour. The women are complaining that condoms always break.

(Soundbite of people speaking Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Carmen, with PSI, is explaining that they should use a lubricant with the condoms. The women say they've worked here for years. One says she's 55 years old; the other - with a laugh - claims to be 1,000. Neither wants to give her name. Both are portly. Aside from the thick makeup, they've made little attempt to look sexy. This is the low-cost end of the Mexican sex trade, where transactions can cost as little as $4 or $5. The one who says she's 1,000 years old has lost quite a few teeth. She says getting clients to use condoms is often a battle.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Customers come and offer me more money for sex without a condom, she says. I say no because there's a lot of AIDS. I'm not going to go without a condom. She says the worst clients are the drunks and the drug addicts. They rarely want to use protection. She adds, however, that a lot of women in the area will work without preservativos.

Mexico has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in Latin America; just 0.3 percent of the adult population is infected. But HIV rates are far higher among sex workers. Ricardo Roman(ph), who's been with Population Services International for five years, says his agency is trying to get sex workers to protect themselves and their clients from HIV. But he says getting people on the street to talk about HIV and change their behavior can be difficult.

Mr. RICARDO ROMAN(ph) (Population Services International): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: People who live in a context of violence and mistrust, he says, you give them a condom and they're really afraid that you're going to ask for something back. And generally in low-income areas, people are more afraid.

The head of Mexico's National HIV/AIDS program, Jorge Saavedra, says HIV has taken root here among people who live on the margins of society and are often discriminated against. The HIV rate among gay men is 15 percent. Saavedra says HIV prevention programs need to address social as well as health issues.

Mr. JORGE SAAVEDRA (National Centre for the Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS): So we really need to invest in diminishing the levels of stigma, discrimination and homophobia that we all face here, not just in Mexico, but all Latin American countries.

BEAUBIEN: Mexico is launching a TV and radio campaign to try to reduce discrimination against homosexuals. The group with the highest rate of HIV in Mexico is male prostitutes. In a recent study in the northern city of Monterrey, 25 percent of male sex workers tested positive for the virus. After dark at the Alameda Central in Mexico City, men linger on park benches and hang out around a waterless fountain.

The line between prostitution and consensual encounters is often blurred here. Some men are clearly professionals; other may be poor campesinos simply looking for a place to spend the night. Still others are just out looking to meet other men. At the east end of the park, two men are sitting together on some steps. They both say they worry about HIV.

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I lived with this guy for six years, one of the men says. We split up two years ago and then he found out he was infected. I don't have much contact with him now, but his quality of life has deteriorated significantly.

Despite his former partner becoming ill, this man, who's 43, says he hasn't been tested for HIV.

The man sitting next to him says people here in the park are scared of the disease. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fistful of condoms to prove it.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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