Brazil Uses ‘Unconventional’ Leaders in Fight Against AIDSBrazil's "acclaimed" AIDS program involves an "unconventional but potent mix of activists," including government officials, Roman Catholic priests and an HIV-positive transsexual, the Wall Street Journal reports. This "broad coalition" of activists "reflects an openness about the realities of life that most countries lack," Fernando Zacarias, AIDS coordinator for the Pan American Health Organization, said. Along with government officials and scientists, prostitutes and drug users serve on the National AIDS Commission. Transsexual Jacqueline Rocha also serves on the commission, is a leader of the newly formed Brazilian National Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS and was a "key organizer" of Forum 2000, an AIDS conference last November where she appeared side-by-side with the country's health minister, Jose Serra. Dr. Paulo Teixeira, head of Brazil's AIDS program, called the situation "absolutely natural," adding that Rocha is a "superb activist." The fact that Rocha, born Jacques Rocha Cortes, is a transsexual "makes absolutely no difference" to other activists or the public, according to Pedro Chequer, who previously directed the nation's AIDS program and now serves as UNAIDS' regional chief. Rocha has been active in "press[ing] the government for assurances" that locally produced generic AIDS drugs will meet the same standards as the patented drugs. She has also been active in alerting the government to human and civil rights violations, such as discrimination in the workplace against HIV-positive individuals. Rocha contracted HIV in 1994 and has been on antiretroviral drugs since participating in a 1995 drug distribution pilot program. Last October she was one of eight foreign guests at the "biggest" annual American AIDS conference in Atlanta, where she called on pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of drugs to "improve our chances of living." She had twice been denied a U.S. visa, but was granted a 10-year multiple-entry visa after the Global Health Council lobbied that her participation was "crucial."
Catholics Join the Fight
Brazil has also received unlikely help from some Catholic officials. The nation has the world's largest Roman Catholic population and the church also sponsors its own AIDS commission. "The church in Brazil is not afraid to address delicate issues," Teixeira said, adding that it is the government's "partner even in sex issues." Father Valeriano Paitoni, a "longtime AIDS activist," triggered "controversy" last year when he produced an AIDS information video for clergy that said encouraging the use of condoms was not a sin. The archbishop reprimanded the priest and condemned the use of condoms in a newspaper statement, but was repudiated by the Health Ministry, which helped fund Paitoni's programs. The ministry has gone "one step further" and released "religion-laden" condom ads in time for this week's annual Carnival celebration. The ads depict an angel and a devil and encourage people to use condoms, "no matter which side you are on" (Jordan, Wall Street Journal, 2/21).