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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

South Florida: What’s behind the alarming spike in HIV infections in Panama?

In May, University of  South Florida College of  Public Health alumna and research professor Dr. Arlene Calvo participated in a National Public Radio interview about the rise in HIV infections in Panama. What follows is an excerpt of that story.

A short man with a ponytail peeks through a crack in a sheet-metal fence, calling out to see if anybody’s home. His name is Dario Garcia and he is checking on some people with HIV to make sure they’re taking their meds.

Mr. Garcia walks through the muddy yard, past chickens and scrawny dogs, to the cinder block house.

Inside, he finds two men, both indigenous and HIV-positive. At first, they want to talk to Mr. Garcia. Then, they spot someone outside — a neighbor or a family member. They clam up. One man backs into the corner of the room. If he could dissolve into the ash-gray wall, he would. Nobody else in the household knows they have HIV, and the men are afraid to be overheard. Mr. Garcia quickly changes the subject. A few minutes later, he leaves.

“I still find people with this fear that others will simply hear the word ‘HIV’ spoken around them,” Mr. Garcia says in Spanish. “They automatically shut down and don’t talk.”

Mr. Garcia, who holds a law degree, is a volunteer for a nongovernmental organization called Viviendo Positivamente, or Living Positively. He says the stigma surrounding HIV is strong. And he knows this firsthand — he, too, is HIV-positive.

“The greatest discrimination that exists for a person with HIV is in their own family,” Mr. Garcia says.

Mr. Garcia is an ethnic Ngabe, the largest indigenous group in Panama, and he is heartsick about the crisis his people are facing. In other parts of the world, the rate of new HIV infection is on the decline. Here, it’s spiking. About 150,000 people live in the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle territory, and AIDS is the now the second-leading cause of death there, accounting for more than 8 percent of deaths. Approximately 2.5 percent of people who live in the Comarca Ngabe-Bugle carry the virus.

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