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AIDS Epidemic Knows No Borders, Sun-Sentinel Editorial

Editorial, June 10, 2001

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board

June 10, 2001

Many view the Caribbean as a third U.S. border. Every year, millions of people travel between the United States and the Caribbean islands. The region also sends immigrants and refugees to U.S. shores. Goods and services move along with people. In fact, South Florida's largest trading partners are in the Caribbean.

Tragically, so is a growing AIDS crisis.

The Caribbean now has the world's highest rate of HIV infection outside sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 2 percent of the region's population is infected with the AIDS virus -- around half a million people. One-third of the victims are women. A growing number are children.

The Sun-Sentinel has devoted a special section today to this health crisis close to home. Reporters Tim Collie, Michele Salcedo and Vanessa Bauzß chronicle AIDS' advance through beachside resorts and tropical shantytowns. Photographers Mike Stocker, Hilda P´rez and Angel ValentĀn capture the epidemic's haunting images. Some are of children so emaciated by the disease that they resemble Nazi concentration camp survivors.

The stories and photos may frighten or move readers to tears. Above all, they should make everyone think about the disastrous potential of the Caribbean's AIDS crisis, and what can be done to curb it.

Humanity and common sense are reasons to care about a growing epidemic on the United States' third border. AIDS, which also is increasing among some segments of the U.S. population, has become the leading cause of death for young men and women in the Caribbean. An estimated 85,000 children have been orphaned by the disease. AIDS strains island economies and threatens to reduce life expectancy in the region.

This epidemic has consequences for South Florida as well. All new immigrants are required to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Most of those who have it are not allowed to enter the United States. But illegal immigrants don't get tested. As the Caribbean's AIDS crisis gets worse, illegal immigration will become an even greater problem.

This doesn't mean that AIDS is a Caribbean disease. Health experts believe that HIV was first introduced to the region decades ago by a tourist who could have come from New York or London. The AIDS virus can travel in either direction between the United States and nearby island-nations.

The potential impact on trade and foreign investment is also a major concern. As more Caribbean workers get sick or die from AIDS, businesses will suffer. Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur cautions that, "The Caribbean has never lost a generation of its most talented young people because of war or natural disaster. It is in danger of doing so because of the pandemic of AIDS."

The pandemic's epicenter is Haiti, where infection rates run as high as 12 percent. Haiti lacks the resources to treat the sick and prevent the virus from spreading. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispa˜ola with Haiti, also has a high number of AIDS cases, in part because of a growing sex tourism industry in that country.

The disease also is becoming a major problem in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica and other places as well. The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which are part of the United States, have the nation's third- and fourth-highest AIDS rates, respectively. Throughout the region, the AIDS virus is spreading among women and children and threatening entire populations.

Cuba is the exception. It has one of the world's lowest HIV infection rates in a region ravaged by AIDS. Early on, Cuba quarantined HIV-positive patients and contained the virus' spread. Its methods were criticized, and today Cuba runs a mostly volunteer AIDS program that offers patients treatment, housing and a decent diet.

But widespread prostitution and sex tourism still pose an AIDS threat for Cuba. This is all the more reason why Havana and Washington should be cooperating to combat AIDS.

It will take money to control the epidemic. The region spends only one-tenth of the estimated $260 million a year needed for AIDS treatment and prevention. Some help is on the way. The World Bank is offering $100 million in loans for Caribbean AIDS programs. The United Nations is launching a global AIDS fund, with assistance from the United States. The fund is intended mostly for Africa, where the need is the greatest. But it also would provide help for the Caribbean. Drug companies have begun to reduce the cost of antiretroviral drugs in poor countries.

All these measures are needed, and more.

But prevention is key. Caribbean leaders must deal with the epidemic's roots, which are ignorance, poverty, promiscuity and cultural and religious taboos. In some Caribbean countries, and in Puerto Rico, local governments are reluctant to promote condom use for fear of offending the Catholic Church. If AIDS is to be beaten, these attitudes must change.

As a neighbor, the United States can help the Caribbean fight a growing health crisis. This would be in America's best interest since AIDS knows no borders.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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