March 4, 2004 – When the first multicultural Caribbean conference on HIV/AIDS opens Friday in Santo Domingo, 55 people from St. Croix, 29 from St. Thomas and four from St. John will be among 1,800 people expected to attend.
The conference, which runs through Sunday, is entitled "A Multicultural Caribbean Against HIV/AIDS." Its goals include heightening the awareness of HIV- and AIDS-related issues in the region, disseminating the latest research as well as fostering collaboration and communication. The conference targets researchers, health care and service providers, and people living with HIV or AIDS from the Caribbean and around the globe.
This is the first time the entire Caribbean has come together to discuss an issue wreaking havoc across the region.
"We need to start thinking as a whole region," said Dr. Carmen Zorrilla of Puerto Rico. Zorrilla serves on the planning committee and started one of the first programs for HIV/AIDS prenatal screening.
She expects conference participants will forge relationships that will help them attack the problem region-wide rather than just on their home islands. Zorrilla said frequent migration among islands results in easy spreading of the disease in island populations.
"It makes it very difficult to deal with in terms of prevention and care," Zorrilla said.
She said that the Caribbean region ranks second in the world in terms of new AIDS cases per year. Sub-Saharan African is the region with the most new cases per year. In the Caribbean region, she said, Haiti has the worst problem, followed by the Dominican Republic and then Jamaica, Trinidad and Puerto Rico.
"I believe the USVI is not far behind," she said.
By the end of 2003, an estimated 350,000 to 590,000 Caribbean adults and children were living with HIV/AIDS, according to statistics provided by the conference. New infections appear to be growing: In 2003, 45,000 to 80,000 new cases appear in the Caribbean. That's about 25 percent more than the number of people infected in North America.
In 2003, 30,000 to 50,000 people in the Caribbean died from HIV infections. This compares to 12,000 to 18,000 in North America and 2,600 to 3,400 in Western Europe.
In many places, sex workers have the highest rate, Zorrilla said, but in Puerto Rico, the drug users top the list.
In St. Croix, 21 percent of Hispanic women "in the promiscuous life" have HIV/AIDS, said the Rev. Arnaldo Gonzalez of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Christiansted. He is also a member of the planning committee
He said that many women are submissive to men, which prevents the women from saying no when men demand sex. This contributes to the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.
Zorrilla said that currently each island keeps statistics in a different way. She hopes that the conference will help develop a common way to develop data to make it more useful.
There are many obstacles to dealing with the HIV/AIDS problem, she said. For starters, Caribbean nations are usually small with few resources. In many cases, there may be only one person at one clinic who can do counseling.
Gonzalez said he and his team do outreach in the St. Croix community. They try to convince people to get tested, to change their negative behavior and to get treatment if they're infected.
"But I believe in prevention. It's my main objective," he said.
The conference has Delegate Donna M. Christensen on the speakers list. Haiti's former first lady, Mildred Trouillot-Aristide, was also scheduled to speak, but conference organizers said they were unsure if she would make the event given Haiti's recent government upheaval.
The conference will be conducted in English, French, Spanish, and Dutch.
The conference is sponsored by the University of Puerto Rico's Medical Sciences Campus, CARICOM and the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre in collaboration with the AIDS Research Office at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and city and state/country or island where you reside.
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.