The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean poses serious developmental challenges for the region and is currently affecting more than one million people. The number of individuals newly infected each year is estimated to be between 100,000 and 420,000, and nearly 80,000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses each year.
Worldwide, the Caribbean is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of HIV infection rates. Haiti — the poorest country in the region — also has the highest prevalence at more than 3.5 percent. The countries most affected by the epidemic include Suriname, Guyana, Belize and the Dominican Republic. The scale of the epidemic and the effect of these high infection rates on small island nations in particular pose a serious and destabilizing threat to the economies of these countries.
In the Caribbean, the epidemic is concentrated mainly among socially marginalized populations, with sexual transmission being the primary means of infection. The exception is Bermuda, where a significant number of new cases are attributed to injecting drug use, with a rate of infection of 3.3 percent. The stages of the epidemic vary from nation to nation. Unequal socio- economic development, poor health care and high population mobility are among the factors helping to drive the spread of HIV in the Caribbean. A common cultural trend also contributing to the epidemic is for younger women to have sexual relationships with older, HIV-infected men. On some islands, the HIV rate among girls aged 15 to 16 years is up to five times that of boys in the same age group.
In Central America, Honduras is the country hardest hit by the epidemic, reporting 60 percent of the region’s cases, even though it only represents 17 percent of the population (Belize, which has similar or higher incidence rates, is considered part of the Caribbean rather than Central America). As in several Caribbean islands, sex tourism is a growing trend contributing to the epidemic in Central American countries such as Costa Rica.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in South America tends to be characterized by a low national prevalence with particularly high incidence rates among vulnerable populations. In some cities in Brazil, for example, up to 60 percent of injecting drug users have tested positive for HIV, while in Argentina the numbers can be as high as 50 percent. Across the region, men who have sex with men also show high prevalence rates. Targeted efforts financed through Global Fund grants are implementing prevention and behavior change communication campaigns to educate vulnerable populations, reduce stigma and improve respect of human rights of people living with HIV and include such initiatives as campaigns to demystify condom use.