Panama City, July 16, 2009 — Health services in Latin America and the Caribbean need to increase funding, improve access, and eliminate discrimination against homosexual men and other men who have sex with men, if they are to effectively address the health needs of this unique population, said public health experts, government authorities, and representatives of civil society gathered in Panama this week.
Problems of ignorance, stigma, and discrimination have impeded access to health services for men who have sex with men in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, these services often lack personnel with expertise in the unique health needs of this population, which includes homosexual and bisexual men as well as men who do not self-identify as gay but who have sex with other men.
The Regional Consultation on Health Promotion and Provision of Care to Men who have Sex with Men in Latin America was convened by a group of United Nations agencies to initiate the development of a plan to improve access to health services. It is the first such major meeting in the Americas and follows similar consultations in Europe (Slovenia, May 2008) and Asia (Hong Kong, February 2009).
Available data show that men who have sex with men are disproportionally affected by sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV, with rates of infection that are five to ten times higher than the general population in most large cities in the Region. Other frequent health concerns are mental health issues, drug and alcohol use, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of hostility, stigma, and discrimination.
"The task of caring properly for the well-being of people of different sexual orientation is crucial," said the director of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. Mirta Roses. "We are very aware that these persons have unique health needs that are often not addressed by the health services."
"Stigma, discrimination and violence against homosexual, bisexual and trans people will only stop if society works against it. It is imperative to develop a supportive environment where all people are treated with dignity and respect. All citizens are part of society regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but prejudice and repression have impeded recognition of the rights of sexual minorities," said Rebeca Grynspan, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"This situation is improving, but not fast enough to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic by 2015, as committed by the governments,"added the UNDP regional director.
Despite evidence that the HIV epidemic is concentrated in certain populations, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, and injecting drug users, few countries have taken proactive measures to address this situation and to establish appropriate health care services. Programs aimed at men who have sex with men comprise less than 1% of total HIV spending in Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the fact that these men represent estimated 25% of the 1.7 million people living with the virus.
Removing the barriers that prevent homosexual men from accessing routine services is essential to providing appropriate HIV prevention, care, and treatment, the meeting participants said. This includes expanding outreach services, since fear of stigma and discrimination may keep some of these indivuals from accessing routine health services.
The Regional Consultation also acknowledged some good news. Several ministries of health of the Region are already implementing programs to address the health needs of homosexual men. In addition, following changes in legislation in Nicaragua and Panama, all countries in Latin America have now revoked laws criminalizing sex between men. In the Caribbean, homosexual behavior is still a crime in seven countries.
"It is time to prove that all countries of the Region are mature and able to provide the full array of health services to all persons, regardless of sex, age, socioeconomic status, and also sexual orientation," said Dr. Roses.
The Regional Consultation was organized by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC).