February 9, 2007
When South Floridians of Caribbean heritage travel to the islands for Carnival celebrations this month, activists in the region are hoping they will help build AIDS awareness.
"It's an important time for them to reinforce the need for safe practices," said Dr. Karen Sealy, director of the UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team. "They also can have a very vital role in breaking through the stigma that's still a problem in our countries. They're exposed to more. They can be important educators for their families and friends." Sealy spoke last month at a conference of Caribbean journalists from media organizations that have pledged to intensify HIV/AIDS programming over the next year.
During Carnival, AIDS awareness groups will use songs, dances, and parade floats to spread the safe-sex message. Condoms will be widely distributed for free.
The Caribbean has the highest HIV/AIDS rate outside sub-Saharan Africa, with young people, especially young women, the fastest-growing segment of new cases. Sealy and other experts said infections in the region could either plummet or climb dramatically. Infection rates have fallen in Haiti and other countries, but the overall rate is still roughly 2 percent, the same rate Africa had just over a decade ago before a sharp increase.
Last year, some 19,000 people in the Caribbean region died of AIDS; some 27,000 others became newly infected. "We are facing some very chilling numbers that indicate the very future of the Caribbean is at stake," said Dr. Amery Browne of the Trinidad National AIDS Coordinating Committee.
These days, more young people in the islands are getting safe-sex messages in schools and on teen-oriented TV channels such as MTV and BET, which are available throughout the region.