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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | October 2007 

Mexico Hoping to Drive Down HIV/AIDS with Prevention Program
email this pageprint this pageemail usKenny Goldberg - KPBS News
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A woman receives a condom from a condoneta van. (UCSD School of International Health)

Medrano pulls the condoneta over and stops on a street corner. He grabs as many condoms as he can carry, and starts handing them out. One the other side of the van, El Ganso gives out preve-kits.
In 2004, UCSD's Division of International Health launched a research project in Tijuana. The aim was to find out the extent of HIV in the area, and to help prevent people at high risk from becoming infected. That program has inspired an HIV prevention effort that's rolling out all across Mexico.

There's a longstanding tradition in Mexico. Vendors drive through neighborhoods and hawk their wares through a loudspeaker. That's the idea behind a new mode of HIV prevention.

On a weekday afternoon, a small van drives up and down the streets of the Tijuana district known as La Zona Norte. The van is called a condoneta. It's decorated with cartoon characters in the shape of condoms.

Gerardo Medrano is driving the van today. Riding shotgun is his trusty side kick known as El Ganso. Their mission: to deliver free condoms and clean needles to people who need them. It looks like they've come to the right place. The streets of La Zona Norte are lined with female sex workers.

Medrano says there's always action around here.

Gerardo Medrano (in Spanish with English voiceover): If you come here at 6 a.m., there's women who are offering their services. If you come at three in the morning, there are women offering their services. At midnight, at noon, at three in the afternoon, 24 hours a day….Como AM-PM. Sexual AM-PM. It's the same.

Medrano says there are also a lot of IV drug users in the area. So the condoneta carries small packages called preve-kits. Each kit contains two clean syringes and alcohol wipes.

Medrano: Each pack also has a container we call a bullet, which has bleach in it, and that's to clean the syringe and needle in case they need to share it.

Medrano pulls the condoneta over and stops on a street corner. He grabs as many condoms as he can carry, and starts handing them out. One the other side of the van, El Ganso gives out preve-kits. El Ganso is well known on the streets because he shoots drugs himself.

El Ganso (in Spanish with English voiceover): I'm very happy with what I'm doing, trying to help people avoid getting infected. Since I am a drug user, I wouldn't want them to get sick.

The inspiration for the condonetas came from a mobile HIV prevention unit UCSD launched here in 2004. Local health officials liked the program, and convinced the Mexican government to help fund two condonetas in '06.

Now, there are federally-funded condonetas in nearly every state in Mexico.

Dr. Jose Guadalupe Bustamante is Secretary of Health for the State of Baja California. He says it's important for the government to do what it can to prevent HIV.

Bustamante: If a hospital is full of patients, for me it's not a success, it's a failure, because we're failing on prevention.

In Tijuana, about 8 percent of female sex workers are HIV positive. The rate is even higher among IV drug users.

Dr. Bustamante says to battle the epidemic effectively, you have to reach these populations.

Bustamante: And this we have to do it in a different fashion, that breaks down more conservative paradigms, not to remain sitting behind our desks, figuring out how many cases we have. We have to go out there where people are.

On another street corner, Gerardo Medrano hands out condoms like they were going out of style. Medrano says he finds the work incredibly rewarding.

Medrano (in Spanish with English voiceover): I feel really good about it because I'm contributing something to society, to the community. I am trying to educate people, sometimes the education I didn't get at home. So I try to share the information with people who are in most need, so they are not at risk.

It's too soon to tell whether the condonetas will help curb the spread of HIV. But they certainly couldn't hurt. Health officials say this year in Tijuana alone, the condonetas will hand out more than one-million condoms, and more than 50,000 clean syringes.

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the included information for research and educational purposes • m3 © 2008 BanderasNews ® all rights reserved • carpe aestus