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After Five Drug-User Deaths in Puerto Rico, Activists Demand Change

By Julie Turkewitz

March 2, 2011

Fajardo's leaders have ignored the city's most marginalized groups: drug users, homeless people and residents living with HIV/AIDS.

Fajardo's leaders have ignored the city's most marginalized groups: drug users, homeless people and residents living with HIV/AIDS.

Spurred by the recent deaths of five drug users who could not access health care, a group of 20 AIDS activists in Fajardo, Puerto Rico protested outside the mayor's office last week. They demanded local leaders develop critical services for people living with and at risk of HIV.

"The event today passed our expectations," said Gloria González, director for Proyecto Casa de Ayuda Intermedia al Menesteroso, the advocacy and service organization that planned the protest. "We understand that for being the first time that an event like this has been done, the attendance was really great."

Roadblocks to health care -- including transportation issues -- have caused at least five CAIM clients to die in the past year, González said.


Fajardo is a small city on the eastern tip of the Puerto Rico, where AIDS stigma abounds. While many Fajardo residents benefit from the city's bustling tourism industry, elected officials have nearly ignored the city's most marginalized groups: drug users, homeless people and residents living with HIV/AIDS. While advocacy organizations for these groups exist, they are often small, and Puerto Rico lacks a strong tradition of AIDS activism.

For years, CAIM has unsuccessfully attempted to engage Mayor Aníbal Meléndez Rivera and the city government in addressing the lack of lifesaving services for populations relegated to Fajardo's shadows.

CAIM is demanding that the city government open a 24-hour rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol users and ensure the availability of Methadone and Buprenorphine for drug users seeking addiction treatment. CAIM is also calling on the government to find housing, job and study opportunities for homeless people and individuals living with HIV, as well as provide health care transportation services.

Adult HIV prevalence in the Caribbean is about one percent -- higher than in any other region outside sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNAIDS. In Puerto Rico, drug use plays a key role in the spread of the virus. An estimated 40 percent of new HIV infections in men and 27 percent in women are the result of contaminated needles. Few options exist, however, for individuals to access clean syringes. Not surprisingly, the number of deaths due to HIV in Puerto Rico is nearly three times that of the rest of the U.S.

At the protest Thursday, participants wore shirts that said "Yo también soy Fajardo," meaning "I, too, am Fajardo."

Said González: "The word 'tambien' ['also'] stresses the fact that the government has made all these advances, but that they exclude the most unfortunate."

ABOUT CAIM: Led by González, a former drug user, CAIM is a nonprofit that helps one of Fajardo's most marginalized populations -- drug users living with HIV. The organization provides syringe exchange services, food, and links people with health care, education, counseling and referrals for benefits and rehabilitation. The stigma faced by its clients is enormous. Most live in in extreme poverty. Since 2008, CAIM has received technical and fiscal assistance from Housing Works.

This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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