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Tourism and promiscuity are being blamed by health experts for the fast rising incidence of the dreaded Acquired Immmune Deficiency Syndrome AIDS in Tobago, an island that has begun to establish itself as an alternative to traditional tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Whereas Tobago had only a few cases of infection prior to , in Trinidad, AIDS was already the third ranking cause of death for men between the ages of 15 and 24 years and the second ranking cause of death for men in the age group 25 to 34 years.
Now, at least one person in all but one of the villages in Tobago, has tested positive for the HIV virus. Between and , persons, most of them male, tested positive for the virus, with 91 deaths within this period. These statistics show only part of the picture. Not included in the official figures are those people who choose to be tested in private laboratories or in Trinidad. These revelations were made at a recent conference on Youth, Family Life, Mental Health and AIDS, convened after the death of a 14 year old HIV infected girl who confessed to having had sexual relations with more than 30 men between the ages of 19 and Mentor Melville, County Medical Officer of Health, directly attributes the dramatic increase in HIV infection in the island to the advent of sex tourism and the prostitution and pornography associated with it.
She also attributes a misguided sense of revenge for the epidemic. Sex tourism in Tobago mainly involves European and North American women and local men. Some of her partners flatly refused to believe her HIV status and rejected being tested themselves. Two years later, there is still no legislation specifically addressing HIV infection issues. There are also female prostitutes, with a number of Trinidadian women taking up temporary residence in the island during the height of the winter tourist season.
Compared to Trinidad, the more industrially developed island, Tobago is a curious mixture of conservatism and sexual permissiveness. In an economy where tourism is the only industry apart from the flagging farming and fishing sectors, virtually all shops remain closed on Sundays while workers attend church, or sea-side baptisms, for most of the morning. In contrast, young people become sexually active at an early age.
Now that the virus has established a foothold in almost every village, these factors foretell disaster. AIDS patients die quickly here. About 30 percent do not survive the first 12 months after diagnosis. The 10, to 15, dollars a year needed for treatment is far beyond the reach of almost all residents in this island, population just under 49, Victims die quietly at home, kept away from the knowing eyes of those who visit the hospital almost every day to dispense comfort and kind words.