04/13/2011 04:40 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

No Community Left Behind? HIV and AIDS in Latin America

Although President Obama's recent trip to Latin America did not spark as many headlines as one might have expected, the region once again came onto the US radar -- and this time for the right reasons. As the president noted in his speeches, most Latin American countries have come a long way in the last 20 years, with many of them making a full transition to vibrant economies and democratic systems. Despite the great strides many countries have made, however, inequalities are still evident across the region. Nowhere is this more evident than in access to health care, with HIV and AIDS remaining a major public health issue.

As recently as in 2009, there were an estimated 1.4 million people living with HIV or AIDS in Latin America. While HIV/AIDS was initially concentrated in the region among the highest risk groups such as sex workers, it has spread increasingly to other populations, with an especially increased incidence among women. The incidence of infection also varies drastically from country to country: Honduras, for example, has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in Central America, claiming over 60 percent of reported cases, but only 17 percent of Central America's population. According to the NGO Funders Concerned About AIDS, Latin America receives only 2% of US philanthropic funding for HIV/AIDS .

CHF International's team, which administers the Global Fund program to combat HIV/AIDS and malaria in Honduras, tells us about the lives of people coping with HIV and AIDS that are both harrowing and encouraging. One example is Paula*. Only 31 years old and a mother of three young children, she lives in a slum on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Until falling gravely ill a year ago, Paula had never taken an HIV test and was unaware she had the virus. Although she was admitted to a hospital and started treatment right away, it took her three long months to recover and, during that period, her three young children were left to fend for themselves. Her oldest son, Mario*, only seven, had to take care of his two little sisters and cook and clean, in addition to visiting his mother at the hospital almost every day. Although Paula has returned home, Mario continues to be her main caregiver. The little boy is responsible for collecting the medications from the hospital every week and administering the drugs to his mother, who only recently became well enough to leave the house. It is an enormous responsibility, especially for someone at such young age. You can read more stories about people living with HIV or AIDS in Honduras.

CHF International has been working with communities affected by HIV and AIDS in Honduras since May 2008 and this month we will begin in Colombia as Principal Recipient for the Global Fund, working with HIV and AIDS affected communities. We work closely with the public sector, local organizations and charities such as Walking with Children, to assist families affected by HIV and AIDS.

Across the region, often it is the communities who are economically and socially excluded that also find themselves at greatest risk of illnesses such as HIV. In Colombia, for example, this includes youth, sex workers, men who have sex with men, prisoners, Afro-Colombians, and the displaced population. And as Paula's story in Honduras demonstrates, HIV/AIDS is very often a family issue and as such requires a holistic approach. It is not enough only to ensure that the patient receives medication; we need to ensure, for example, that children are well-nourished, attend school and have the psychosocial support they need.

As Latin American countries continue to advance and strengthen their economies and international presence, it is important to address these pressing issues now, to ensure that vulnerable communities also become part of the growing success story of the region. No community should be left behind.

* Names have been changed to respect their privacy.