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Although the rate of new HIV infections is leveling off in parts of Latin America, health officials urged the world to keep supporting programs to fight the disease and keep those with the virus alive. At a Thursday briefing hosted by the United Nations AIDS agency, health officials from Latin American countries discussed their accomplishments and challenges in fighting HIV.
''We ask you not to delay this aid to our countries...because HIV does not allow delays, does not allow budgets. People are suffering, people are dying,'' said El Salvador's vice minister of health, Jose Ernesto Navarro Marin. Delivering HIV assistance to those who need it most has been ''an extremely complex process'' in Latin America, he said. According to UNAIDS, more than half of the estimated 1.7 million people living with HIV in Latin America live in the four largest countries: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. But prevalence of the virus is highest in smaller countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, and Belize. The proliferation of HIV in Latin America has largely been fueled by factors such as poverty, migration, insufficient information about prevention, and ''rampant homophobia,'' according to UNAIDS. Injection-drug users and male homosexuals, however, are the communities with the most recent outbreaks of the epidemic. ''Unprotected sex between men remains a significant factor in HIV transmission and accounts for nearly half of the sexually transmitted HIV infections in Brazil,'' according to a 2006 UNAIDS report. ''As HIV spreads from the most-at-risk populations to other lower-risk populations, women are increasingly being infected.'' Health officials at the briefing agreed that education in universities and schools had played a large role in reducing the number of new infections for Latin American countries, citing Brazil's emphasis on treatment and prevention, which includes free HIV testing for some groups, including pregnant women. ''Years ago it used to be a taboo talking about sex education. Now things have changed in the last seven or eight years, young people understand better,'' Marin said. (Tracee Herbaugh, AP)