August 20, 2003
According to experts' estimates, as many as 7 percent of the approximately 20,000 youngsters ages 13-17 who live on the streets of Mexico City are HIV-infected. Ignorance, unprotected sex, promiscuity and drug use are spreading the virus quickly among this high-risk group.
HIV "is a serious problem among street kids, because many of them are too involved in drugs to even care," said Silvia Garcia, who works with Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, which aids street children. The most widely consumed drug among these children is a solvent used to clean plumbing pipes. Sniffing the product from a tissue causes hallucinations and offers temporary relief from hunger, sadness and loneliness. The second-most popular drug is crack cocaine.
Even though a local nongovernmental organization "hands out free condoms for us to have safe sex, the kids don't use them, either out of embarrassment, because they don't know how to use them, or because they prefer to swap them for drugs," said Raul, a street boy with HIV. None of the street kids interviewed by the Mexican NGO Caracol said they had used a condom during that year. Many of the males said their girlfriends believed the intrauterine device protected them from STDs.
"We must recognize that due to the lack of schooling and high levels of drug use among street children, as well as the frequent practice of exchanging sex for food, drugs or protection, they are a group at high risk of contracting the disease," said Martin Perez, head of Caracol. Since 1997, the NGO has been offering safe sex workshops to Mexico City street children. The Mexican chapter of Casa Alianza also provides education and takes in HIV-positive street children, offering them medical and psychological assistance. In addition, the government carries out awareness campaigns. People who test positive for HIV are supplied with antiretroviral drugs free of charge through NGOs and public hospitals.
Perez said that some NGOs offer kids free HIV tests, but many youths never pick up the results. "We have even found that some of the kids believe they already have the disease, just because they had an AIDS test."
AIDS is the third leading cause of death among men ages 25-44 in Mexico, and 86 percent of the estimated 150,000 people living with HIV in Mexico, a country of 100 million people, are men, according to UNICEF.