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New effort to halt spread of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean

KINGSTON, Jamaica--A handful of sex workers sit on discarded cardboard along a filthy sewer channel, sharing food and razors to shave their legs and faces as they prepare for the night's labor on the streets of Jamaica's capital.

Gay sex and prostitution is illegal in Jamaica, and LGBT people who sell sex face arrest or worse. But this normally wary group is welcoming on a recent evening as a volunteer descends into the open channel with condoms, lubricant and health advice.

“It's hard living like this, but we're trying our best to stay safe and healthy. Nobody wants to get HIV,” says one of the gay men, a shirtless 21-year-old who gives his name only as Kris.

In much of the world, giving out condoms and guidance to gay, bisexual and transgender sex workers is routine. But reaching out to men who have sex with men is practically revolutionary in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean, where homophobia and laws criminalizing gay sex have long driven people underground — turning them into the toughest group to reach with HIV prevention programs and fueling a regional epidemic.

Now, there's a growing momentum to turn the tide in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and eight other countries that criminalize sex between adults of the same gender. Even as funding grants get tighter, HIV prevention programs to reach men who have sex with men are scaling up and advocacy groups appear energized.

“We are in an entirely new era,” said Ernest Massiah, the Trinidad-based Caribbean director for the United Nations program on HIV and AIDS.

A clear sign of changing times is Jamaica's Color Pink Group, a nonprofit founded in 2011 whose existence would have been almost unthinkable on the island a decade ago. On a recent night, founder James Burton, one of very few Jamaican homosexuals who feel comfortable disclosing their full name, wore a loud pink shirt as he spoke about HIV prevention to a group of young gays outside a Kingston shopping mall.

“This is what was really lacking before: visibility and one-on-one connections,” said Burton, whose group also provides vocational training and distributes condoms and lubricant.

But while societal acceptance of homosexuality is increasing, according to new polls commissioned by UNAIDS in eight Caribbean countries, the problem for gay men remains dire, even as the region has seen sharp declines in overall HIV infection for the population as a whole since 2000.

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In this April 4 photo, homeless youths hang out at the entrance of a sewer pipe along a trash-strewn canal where they live beneath a busy road in Kingston, Jamaica. They are part of a small group of young, gay and transgender Jamaicans who mostly sell sex to make money.

(AP)

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