A new United Nations study shows that teenagers in Costa Rica’s two port cities know little about the risks of AIDS and HIV, even as they engage in unsafe sex.
Nearly 62 percent teens in the Central Pacific port town of Puntarenas and 57 percent in the Caribbean port town of Limón did not know how the HIV virus is transmitted. Some 83 percent in Puntarenas and 72 percent in Limón did not know how to put on a condom.
“Levels of awareness are extremely low in Limón, and even lower in Puntarenas,” the report concluded. “The situation in Puntarenas is dire.”
Half of teens in Puntarenas and 37 percent in Limón have had sex.
Particularly worrisome, 14 percent of teens in Puntarenas and 6 percent of teens in Limón said they have had sexual relations against their will in the past six months.
“That’s rape. There is no other way to describe it,” said Marco Fournier, who worked on the study.
The study has led President Oscar Arias to renew calls for sexual education, a position that has long met with resistance from the Catholic Church and many parents.
“We have to talk seriously about education, and even more seriously about sexual education, without blushing or concealment, without qualms or biases,” Arias said.
The study, which surveyed 400 teens ages 13 to 18 in each city, is part of a project by the UN Children’s Fund, the UN Population Fund and the Culture and Youth Ministry to promote healthy sexual practices.
The project also seeks to train 80 young people and another 80 health and education professionals to become sex educators in Limón and Puntarenas. They will give chats and organize activities to spread awareness about safe sex practices and HIV and AIDS, said project coordinator Marianela Vega. The United Nations has donated about $157,000 to the project, but another $268,000 is needed, Vega said.
Separately, Costa Rica will host a weeklong conference in October for activists, government officials and young people throughout Central America to discuss the HIV and AIDS, including prevention and treatment, said Health Vice Minister Ana Cecilia Morice.
Levels of AIDS and HIV are low in Costa Rica compared to other underdeveloped nations. According to www.globalhealthfacts.org, some 9,700 people in Costa Rica have the virus, or just 0.23 percent of the population, compared to 30 percent in parts of southern Africa.
But authorities say the UN study reflects a troubling ignorance. Of people who have had sex in the last six months, 21 percent in Puntarenas and 22 percent in Limón said they rarely or never used a condom.
More than half said they felt embarrassed about buying condoms at a pharmacy. Another half said asking a partner to use a condom could be interpreted as a lack of trust.
The most common reasons for not using a condom were the worry that parents would find out, embarrassment about buying them, the idea that condoms reduce pleasure, and not having one at the right moment.
Half of the teens in Puntarenas and 69 percent in Limón said it was easier for women to be faithful than for men.
Just 34 percent of teens in Puntarenas and 27 percent in Limón recognized that abstinence, fidelity, medical exams and condom use were good ways to avoid contracting HIV.
Teens were also wary about becoming close to people with the virus. More than 42 percent in Puntarenas and nearly 60 percent in Limón said it would be hard for them to make friends with someone with HIV or AIDS.
At a press conference Tuesday, Arias told the story of Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and philanthropist, who released a jar of what he said were malaria-infected mosquitoes at a conference in California.
“There is no reason only poor people should be infected,” Gates said, before telling the alarmed crowd that it was a joke.
“The study about HIV and AIDS awareness in Puntarenas and Limón is as discomfiting as the freed mosquitoes in California,” Arias said. “We are all potential carriers of HIV. We are all vulnerable to infection.”