The winds of change are blowing through Chile, where a youthful sexual revolution is shattering taboos — but also sparking an explosion of HIV cases that has set off alarm bells in the traditionally conservative Latin American country.
Chile has the highest rate of HIV cases in the region: 5,816 new cases were registered last year, a jump of 96 percent since 2010.
People aged 15 to 29 are the most exposed, authorities said, as they are about to unveil a new prevention plan for the virus, which causes AIDS.
“There has been a change in sexual behavior among young Chileans, linked to new ways of experimenting with their sexuality,” said Claudia Dides of the Miles Corporation, a non-governmental organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive rights.
“It is no longer about feelings or passion, it’s just about hooking up,” said Carlos Beltran, an infectious diseases expert and member of the commission putting together the new plan.
“Now, young people have sexual encounters,” he said, with many of them blurring the lines between gay and heterosexual relations.
This evolution in sexual mores among young people has troubled much of the rest of the largely conservative Chilean society, particularly politicians.
“There is a complete discrepancy between official discourse, and today’s reality: Neither the government nor lawmakers want to see this, and public policy is 30 years behind,” Dides said.
Sexual education disappeared from Chilean high schools about 10 years ago, largely due to opposition by conservative groups.
Among young Chileans aged 15 to 29, 71 percent say they are sexually active, but only 30 percent have ever been tested for HIV.
Just 20 percent know what constitutes risky sexual behavior, Chilean National Youth Institute data showed.
The use of condoms among people aged 15 to 24 plunged from 30 to 22 percent between 2016 and last year, Chilean Ministry of Health data showed.
Experts said that is largely because of a perception that there is little risk.
“The way HIV is seen in society is very different from a few years ago,” said Carlos Passarelli, the representative in Chile of the UN Program on HIV/AIDS.
“Young Chileans no longer fear AIDS,” Beltran said. “In fact, they are ready to expose themselves voluntarily to the virus by having sexual relations with infected people.”
Carolina del Real, 37, discovered that she was HIV-positive seven years ago and now devotes her time to teaching people about prevention.
She was only diagnosed after a bout of pneumonia left her close to death.
“Nobody thought that I ought to have a test. And me neither,” she said. “I did not even know what it was called.”
So she decided to share her experience.
“When I came out of the clinic I started telling what had happened to me to my friends, to friends of friends,” she said. “I needed to tell them: Please take the test. This could happen to you.”
“From day to day everything is normal... But I feel vulnerable,” said del Real, who every evening takes antiretroviral drugs supplied by Chilean health authorities.
While young people might no longer fear AIDS as they once did, prejudice toward carriers of HIV remains entrenched in Chilean society at large.
For del Real, it means that she can no longer find a stable job, get credit or take out insurance.
“What happens if I die old and alone? If at 37, a fever leaves me immobilized, how is my old age going to be?” she asked.
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