Latin America: HIV/AIDS numbers up, but new infections stabilizing across region

November 30, 2012


Health worker marks blood for HIV testing.

  • Life expectancy of those living with HIV/AIDS has increased with new infection rates stabilizing across the region.
  • New reports highlight need for programs which specifically target high-risk groups.

In a bittersweet paradox, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean seems to be on the rise as more people live longer with the condition, experts said on World AIDS Day 2012.

With more than 1.5 million Latin Americans living with the disease –a 25% increase since 2001 —the number illustrates both the progress made in recent years against the epidemic and the challenges remaining.

Latin America’s response to the global HIV/AIDS scourge has made some important strides over the past two decades, seeing a significant increase in the life expectancy of those living with HIV/AIDS as well as new infection rates across the region stabilizing. Gains include increased public awareness, the development of national strategies and programs integrated into health systems.

However no major progress is possible until HIV programs reach key populations at a higher risk for HIV, experts say. “The region needs to pay more attention to reaching those groups successfully,” explains Shiyan Chao, World Bank Senior Economist.

But while the overall trend shows a drop in new infections, infection rates are not constant across society as a whole. Instead, behavioral patterns place certain groups more at risk of infection, with two diverse trends evident.

In the Caribbean, 250 000 people live with HIV/ AIDS and HIV prevalence amongst adults is higher than any other region outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Here, infections are predominantly driven through unprotected heterosexual sex.

Whereas, in Latin America unprotected sex between men is the significant mode of transmission, and to a lesser extent, sex work and injecting drug use. But despite this, Chao warns that only a fraction of prevention and treatment programs target them successfully.

This is especially true in the Caribbean, where “cultural taboos, HIV-related stigma and especially homophobia have often restricted frank debate about the sexual and behavioral practices driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” according to World Bank Health Specialist Carmen Carpio.

" The region needs to pay more attention to successfully reaching these groups. "

Shiyan Chao

World Bank Senior Economist

Where is the region today?

Worldwide it is estimated that 34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS , 1.74 million of whom are in Latin America and the Caribbean. This number “illustrates both the challenge of the epidemic, yet at the same time, the progress that has made in addressing it,” notes Carpio

The most notable achievements include:

  • A significant increase in the life expectancy among people living with HIV/AIDS
  • The transmission of HIV from infected mothers to newborn children has been markedly reduced to nearly zero in most countries of the Caribbean and many in South America
  • Almost universal public awareness and knowledge about HIV/AIDS (estimated at 90 percent in 1998)
  • Condom sales have doubled in many countries over the last two decades
  • Capacity has been improved for laboratory testing, surveillance, and ancillary medical care
  • Involvement of key populations at a higher risk for HIV and those living with HIV/AIDS in civil society programs.

HIV/AIDS has been a challenge to both Latin America and the Caribbean since the early 80s and remains so today. But through continued vigilance and focus the region can sustain gains made so far, while addressing the behaviors currently driving the epidemic.