The 17th International AIDS Conference got underway in Mexico City Sunday and will continue through Friday. Along with government officials, private non-profit groups and medical researchers, the conference has drawn activists and representatives of grassroots groups from around the world. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Mexico City, most of their focus is on better treatment for those infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS as well as prevention.

While the formal sessions continue inside the conference hall, most of the activists andgroups with a specific agenda congregate under a huge tented area called the Global Village. Among the groups represented are national AIDS foundations, various organizations that work with HIV-infected people and their families, and advocates of various programs that could help prevent the virus from spreading.  

One of the more vocal groups is a coalition of sex workers and sex worker unions from various countries. They advocate safer sex practices, the use of condoms and legalization of their trade as ways of combating the disease.

Rachel is a sex worker who came here from Australia, where her profession is legal and subject to taxes and regulations. She says involving sex workers in government health programs is better than stigmatizing them as potential disease carriers. 

"Sex workers are part of the solution, we are not the problem. Like we always say, there should be nothing about us without us. If people are really serious about combating HIV and want to increase the levels of education and adherence to best sex practices, sex workers need to be included at all levels," she said.

Rachel says countries that legalize prostitution, which she prefers to call sex work, have better health conditions and are better able to control the spread of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Condom use is important in AIDS prevention

One of the most important tools in preventing AIDS from being transmitted through sexual activity is the condom. Caitlin Delaney works with a Canada-based organization that promotes the use of condoms through an animated cartoon featuring three condoms called the Three Amigos. The video is available in some 40 languages, with each one tailored to the cultural sensitivities of the intended audience.

Delaney says the conference here in Mexico has provided an opportunity to work with other groups seeking the same prevention goal. 

"The value of coming to Mexico for us is that we are able to network with people whom we would never be in contact with. Here we get to talk with scientists and researchers and share what we are doing and what they are doing," Delaney said.

Delaney says people from some countries are more open than others to the humorous approach her video utilizes. Such campaigns have been criticized by conservatives around the world who believe promoting the use of condoms is a way of promoting sexual promiscuity. But Delaney says the reality of AIDS and its devastating toll provides urgency to efforts to promote prevention. 

"Until there is a cure, prevention is the only way to deal with not getting AIDS and also, too, it is important that when you are infected that you still work with prevention and the best way to do that is with a condom," she said.

Education is essential to reduce HIV infection rate

Health professionals attending the conference agree that the use of condoms is an effective prevention tool. Studies show that condoms have up to 90 percent efficacy in preventing the transmission of the HIV virus.

Jose Llados Comenge has worked in public health projects in Latin America and Africa for Population Services International, a non-profit organization that promotes health education. He says no one should assume that they are 100 percent protected by a condom.

"A condom can break or people can not use them properly, but if you use them correctly and use them all the time, you are well protected against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases," he said.

Llados Comenge says one of the biggest problems he has seen in developing nations is inconsistent use of condoms. He says a sex worker who insists that her clients use condoms, for example, may not be as insistent with a boyfriend or husband.  

Participants in this conference say coming together in one place for a week of discussions and sharing of information provides mutual encouragement and new approaches to combating the scourge of AIDS.