Saturday, March 3, 2001

Mike Williams
Cox News Service

Frank sex talk saves young lives in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE — The teenagers show up shortly after school lets out, climbing the stairs of a nondescript office building in the bustling downtown district of Haiti's capital.

Some come for the social scene, some for the games, some just to hang out. But they all get a frank dose of straight talk on a subject many admit they hear little about at home: sex, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy.

"It's very open," said Esther Latortue, 19, who heard about the class from a friend. "I came to learn about sexual reproduction and how to protect myself. It's something that parents often don't want to talk about."

In an impoverished nation with the highest rate of AIDS outside Africa, the frank talk could help save a generation of young Haitians from early death or lives trapped in a cycle of teen motherhood and grinding poverty.

The message is supplied by the Foundation for Reproductive Health and Family Education, a group started in the late 1980s by Dr. Adeline Verly, a Haitian physician.

"The poor in Haiti have traditionally had no access to family planning," said Dr. Fritz Moise, the foundation's director. "There's a vicious cycle of children having children, then going into prostitution because they are ostracized by their families. Once they are prostitutes, they soon are infected with HIV," the virus that causes AIDS.

Growing concern about the spread of AIDS in the Caribbean has prompted calls for a major education and prevention program. Health officials estimate 500,000 people in the region are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.

Haiti itself has more than 200,000 people with HIV and an alarming infection rate of 5 per cent among the sexually active segment of its 7.8 million population.

"Africa provides us with the window to the future and what can happen when an AIDS epidemic gets out of control and what the cost of inaction is," Peter Piot, director of the UN AIDS program, recently warned Caribbean leaders.

Fearful the disease will start sapping their islands of productive workers, decimating families and scaring away tourists, Caribbean nations have called for a $500-million (U.S.) education and prevention program.

The Haitian doctors will likely be at the heart of the effort. Already they have been chosen by the government to take the lead in spreading the message about AIDS prevention and sexual-responsibility programs through the schools.

The group began with one clinic in Port-au-Prince 10 years ago and now has more than half a dozen clinics around the country employing 20 doctors.

The foundation's main focus is its outreach program, which sends trained young people into schools and neighbourhoods, inviting teens to educational seminars and clubs.

The young people first attend an educational seminar, at which they are bombarded with statistics and information about teen pregnancy, and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Once they complete the course, they join the youth clubs, which hold weekly meetings that begin with a short, frank message about reproductive health and then go on to activities such as photography classes and theatre groups.

"It's a youth club and they come to have fun," Dr. Moise said. "We have found peer education is the key to the strategy. Our youth facilitators make the program work by giving the message to people their own age."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave the group more than $1-million to help expand the outreach program.

With about half of all Haitians illiterate and four out of five living in poverty, the foundation also sends counsellors into poor rural communities and city slums. Their main targets are poor girls who might fall into lives of prostitution.

"We've found that some 70 per cent of the prostitutes were thrown out by their families after they got pregnant," Dr. Moise said. "They turn to prostitution because they have no other way to make a living."

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Created: March 7, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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