María M. Mur
Panama begins on Friday five days of frolicking and debauchery. The Carnivals are the most popular festivals in the Central American country and thousands of people move to the interior to celebrate them, but it is also the time of year when HIV infections are triggered.
The Pro-Welfare and Dignity Foundation for People Affected by HIV-AIDS (Probidsida), the country's most important association, has launched a prevention campaign this week for the King Momo festivities, which includes free tests and distribution of condoms and information brochures.
"These are days when people drink a lot and youth is not controlled, when you are drunk, you do not think about what you are doing", spokesperson Nathaly Navarro told to Acan-Efe.
HIV is a virus that cannot be detected immediately and has a "window period" of between three and six months, which means that an infected person can take up to 180 days to develop antibodies, explained the activist.
"The month in which we have more positive is June, the infections that we counted in June are usually related to risky sexual relationships that have occurred in Carnival", she said.
The festivities are especially famous in several localities of the Panamanian interior such as Las Tablas, Chitré and Penonomé, where some tankers spray water over the people, an activity known as "culecos" and which attracts thousands of national and foreign tourists every year.
"Carnival is joy and fun, I only ask you to do it healthy, HIV has no face, a sexual relationship can leave you infected or pregnant, protect yourself!", says the carnival queen in the video released on social networks by Probidsida.
In Panama, there are currently about 26,000 people with HIV, of whom 57% receive treatment. The foundation, which annually collects data from all public and private hospitals nationwide, estimates that there are another 30,000 people in the country who do not know they are infected.
As in the rest of the world, the most affected population groups in Panama are sex workers, homosexual men, transgender people and inmates.
Since 2010, new infections have increased by 9% -in 2017 there were 1,173 cases- and deaths related to AIDS by 20%, an increase that experts attribute mainly to the lack of sex education and the persistence of stigma and discrimination.
The director of UNAIDS for Latin America and the Caribbean, César Núñez, told to Acan-Efe that there is a "surge" in the epidemic not only in Panama but throughout the region because "our guard has been lowered" after many years of struggle.
"It is good that countries have treatment programs, but the ultimate goal is to reach a significant reduction in infection rates", he said.
For Núñez, the solution is to "intensify" prevention campaigns and include sex education in school curricula, a pending task especially in Central America, where several legislative initiatives have provoked a strong rejection in the most conservative and religious sectors.
"Young people are informed in the street, they inform of their friends, but they are not necessarily the ones with the right information", he warned.
The UN has proposed to reach the goal 90-90-90 in 2020 worldwide, which means that 90% of people living with HIV will know their serostatus, that 90% of people diagnosed will receive treatment continued and that 90% of the people treated will achieve viral suppression.