The sex tourism industry is expanding in the Colombian city of Cartagena, which could be contributing to an increase in HIV prevalence in the region, IRIN/PlusNews reports. According to IRIN/PlusNews, a combination of wealthy tourists and local residents has driven the rise in commercial sex work in Cartagena, which is located on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Mayerlin Verqara Perez, a program coordinator at Fundacion Renacer -- a nongovernmental organization that aims to prevent the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents -- said the situation has become "a lot worse in the last 10 years."
Fundacion Renacer estimates that about 650 children in the city are working in the sex trade industry. Perez added that more children are participating in sex work and at younger ages than in previous years. The organization recruits about 400 children annually to participate in a psycho-social assistance program, which provides testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, counseling, skills training, and education about sexual and reproductive health. Many young people who use the organization's services are diagnosed with STIs, but only three have tested positive for HIV, IRIN/PlusNews reports. However, many young people might be afraid to undergo testing, Fabian Cardenas, regional director of Fundacion Renacer, said. According to Cardenas, many young sex workers "don't take any protective measures" because of limited knowledge about HIV and difficulties in obtaining condoms. In addition, under age sex workers often comply with their clients' preference for condom use, Cardenas said, adding that some clients consider condoms unnecessary because they believe younger sex workers do not have STIs.
According to IRIN/PlusNews, Colombia's HIV prevalence is less than 1%, and the disease primarily affects men who have sex with men. However, heterosexual transmission has increased in recent years in the Caribbean region, where one in three HIV-positive people is a woman, compared with the national rate of one in four. Ricardo Garcia, UNAIDS country director, said the region's macho culture -- under which it is socially acceptable for men to have multiple sex partners -- could account for the increased HIV prevalence on the Caribbean coast. He added that sex work also could be a contributing factor (IRIN/PlusNews, 11/18).
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