This article was adapted from AQ’s print issue on economic opportunity and peace in Colombia
AQ: How does the crisis in Venezuela specifically threaten people with HIV?
Jesus Aguais: Eighty percent of people with HIV who should be on treatment are not. That’s terrible from a public health perspective. Not only are people going to get sicker, but HIV is going to spread faster.
Taking HIV drugs regularly is necessary for the virus to become undetectable in someone’s blood, and thus unlikely to be transmitted. But UNAIDs reported this past July that only 7 percent of HIV-positive Venezuelans who knew about their status were undetectable. That ranks Venezuela in the bottom 10 countries in the world. We’ve gone back to the 80s when it comes to HIV in Venezuela.
You’ve been working to provide HIV medication to Venezuelans for over two decades. What has surprised you about the current emergency?
I didn’t know HIV was so prevalent among the indigenous Warao community. The latest study in 2013 put the infection rate at almost 10 percent, and the Warao’s remote location prevents many from getting treated. We’re worked closely with UNAIDs and have sent 8,000 rapid HIV tests to the Warao. If we don’t do anything, this community will most likely disappear.
How should the international community react to Venezuela’s medical crisis?
The Venezuelan diaspora and the international community need a strategic response to save the people of Venezuela. This is a matter of life or death. People often don’t trust that donated medicine will get to those who need it, but we’ve been able to work with international agencies to make sure that the drugs get into the hands of the people who need them. We have also found allies within the government, whose own families are suffering and dying from AIDS and other diseases.
Jesus Aguais is the founder and executive director of Aid for AIDS