Alejandro Freire is a man on a mission
HIV/Aids experts and activists have gathered in Argentina this week to focus on preventing and treating the disease, which affects 1.8 million people in Latin America.

Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman reports from Buenos Aires on a regional initiative to a worldwide problem.

Alejandro Freire is a busy man. No time to waste, he says, when it comes to teaching young people about Aids.

"Seventeen years ago, when I got infected with HIV-Aids, there was no way to even test for it. Today testing is available in every public hospital, where treatment is also totally free," he says.

Alejandro is one among the three thousand people taking part in this week's Aids Forum for Latin America and the Caribbean, hosted by Argentina.

In a region known for its male chauvinism, the UN says the Aids epidemic is serious with chilling characteristics.

Juan Barahona of Unicef says: "Sexual abuse of children is common practice. In Ecuador, for example, three out of every 10 children are victims of sexual violence."
 
According to Unicef, that explains why Latin America has the highest proportion of youngsters infected with HIV-Aids in the world.

Women at risk

And there's another alarming trend.

Twenty years ago only a third of those infected were women. Today it's 50 per cent and rising.

In Latin America, 70 per cent of them are monogamous and married, unaware that they must protect themselves from their own husbands.

In Buenos Aires, 21-year-old Lucila, like most of her friends, doesn't use protection against HIV.

"I have a steady relationship, but I can't be sure about my partner. He could cheat on me and infect me."

Church influence

It is more than just a matter of ignorance.

Everyone is talking about the need for prevention and education to stem the Aids epidemic in Latin America.

But what NGOs and government agencies do not like to discuss out loud is the strong influence of the Catholic Church, which condemns the use of condoms and sex education in schools.

Marcel Quintana from Venezuela is on the counter-offensive.

"Before no one talked about it, it was embarrassing to carry a condom," he says.

"Today we activists show them everywhere so people will know that Aids exists, so others won't be infected like I was."

Source: Al Jazeera