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Danger at the US/Mexico Border: From North and South, People Flock to Tijuana -- Along With HIV

April 10, 2002

Thousands of people cross the US/Mexico border every day, many eventually traveling farther north into California or farther south into Mexico, and health officials fear there could be an AIDS explosion in the making. A study released in February from the California Department of Health Services found that rates of HIV infection among young Latino men who have sex with men are 19 percent in Tijuana and 35 percent in San Diego, far above infection rates for similar groups in other California cities.

"We're hoping the study will wake people up," said Robin Slade, founder of the Bi-National AIDS Advocacy Project, known by its Spanish acronym Procabi, the only group working in both San Diego and Tijuana, "because this crisis directly affects the health of every Californian."

The study data, while preliminary, reflect a reality all too familiar to health officials in both cities. The study looked at 374 men -- 249 in Tijuana and 125 in San Diego (another 125 are still being recruited there). All men were ages 18 to 29. Of the men, a low percentage used condoms and a high percentage had sex with women as well as men. In Tijuana, IV drug use was a large factor in HIV infection.

"There's a high percent of men in the study who reported having partners on both sides of the border," Slade said. She and others who provide AIDS services along the border say the reasons behind the high infection rates are complex, but include a lack of education about how HIV is transmitted, a widespread resistance to condoms and a persistent stigma attached to homosexuality and AIDS among US Latinos and Mexicans.

Procabi's Tijuana center provides antiretroviral drug treatment for 128 HIV patients, but the medications are all donated from US patients. Procabi also offers more than 1,000 people with HIV financial support and other resources.

"We're right here on the border, but HIV doesn't know borders," said Juan Manuel Sanchez, Procabi's volunteer coordinator in Tijuana. "A lot of young people and gays come down here to cruise. The people who are at greatest risk are those who come from farther south in Mexico. They're less accustomed to condoms, but they're at risk in Tijuana because we have a higher infection rate."


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Excerpted from:
San Francisco Chronicle
04.07.02; Tycha Hendricks




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