At the recent International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, activists called for a reinvigorated international commitment to prevent HIV/AIDS, which has claimed more than 25 million lives since the disease was first identified in the early 1980s. In 2007, 2.7 million people were newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But the disease is preventable. That's the message that members of a non-profit group in Mexico are taking to the streets – with considerable success.
Four times a week, Alejandro Estanislao unpacks his make-up kit and suitcase of costumes to transform himself into Wicca-the-drag-queen. Alejandro dons a lime-green wig and matching print mini-skirt and black and green tights. This is the uniform he wears to work as an outreach worker for an HIV education program sponsored by Colectivo Sol, an AIDS advocacy group.
As a "condonera" or "condom girl" Alejandro dispenses condoms and free health advice. "The information we give out is information that people can use in a very practical and direct way and it works because we speak to the people in language they can understand."
On this evening, Wicca is joined by Breatney and Penelope. The trio rides in a white van with "CONDOMOBILE" written in large block letters on the rear bumper. They stop at Zona Rosa, the center of Mexico City's gay community. Like old-time nightclub usherettes they work the crowd, hawking merchandise they carry in trays hanging from straps around their necks. Here in the streets of Mexico City, it's not candy they are pushing, but condoms.
Tourists and passersby want to take their pictures, which is exactly the hook the condoneras need to start an informal chat about safe sex. Breatney hands out a female condom to a young woman and then tells her how to use it, making sure that she reads the instructions on the back of the packet.
The condoneras are an extension of Colectivo Sol's mobile HIV prevention program. For the past decade, their condom mobile has delivered HIV services to communities across Mexico. Their success with the project encouraged the Mexican government to adopt the idea in 2006. Now there are vans like these in every Mexican state.
Beatriz Ramirez heads the HIV/AIDS office for the Health Department of the state of Mexico, which operates three of these special vehicles. "People don't go to health centers and so we go where the people are," she says.
On this afternoon they are in a park on the outskirts of Mexico City. Health workers in white lab coats park their condomobile in the middle of Independence Plaza in the outskirts of Mexico City. In a matter of minutes they set up a table and, microphone in hand, begin an animated lesson on the correct use of condoms.
The onlookers – men, women and children of all ages – are polite and captivated with the frank discussion. Following the session a line forms for a free rapid HIV test. One young man, who says he had a "big lapse into promiscuity," is relieved to learn his HIV-status. "The results were negative!"
The man walks away with the promise to take care of himself and use condoms. Beatriz Ramirez says that kind of behavior change is key to stopping the epidemic. Jose Antonio Arias with Colectivo Sol agrees. He has just completed a practical how-to guide for replicating the condomobile program in other countries. Arias hopes his work will speed progress, even just a little, toward the goal of a world without HIV.