TIME MAGAZINE BY ISABEL VINCENT Photos by Zoran Milich. Roatan, Honduras: Roatan is a lush tropical island of some 60,000 people and a paradise for scuba divers in the west of Honduras. It has lately also become a boom town for American investors seeking to buy into lucrative sea-front condominiums communities that are going up across the 36-mile-long island, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Houston. But what many of the developers and buyers don't know or refuse to acknowledge is that Roatan has the second highest incidence of AIDS in Honduras, after the port city of San Pedro Sula. Health care workers on the island say that one in seven people is infected with HIV on Roatan (the figure for the United States is one in 250). But this is a conservative estimate, they stress, because local superstitions and shame still prevent many who may be infected from seeking help.
"The rates are alarmingly high for such a small community," says Scott Fried, a wiry, clean-cut AIDS activist from New York City, who recently spent an afternon knocking on doors in Flowers Bay, an impoverished communtiy of brightly painted strip-wood huses on stilts on Roatan. Fried stepped gingerly over small piles of festering rubbish as he made his way along dirt roads to find a venue for one of is lectures on AIDS prevention. Fried, 43, first discovered the island six months ago when the cruise ship he was on docked there for six hours. When he found out that Roatan was in the midst of what he called an AIDS emergency, he resolved to return and do his part.
Although Fried, a self-described motivational speaker and author of two books, is used to traveling around the U.S. and the world speaking to teenagers in well-appointed high school auditoriums, he was forced to be resourceful on Roatan, where the municipal hospital has no running water and many of the Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean residents believe that they can get HIV by stipping on a chicken bone that has a hex on it." It was totally heartbreaking when I first came here, and talked to teenagers who have HIV," says Fried, a former Broadway actor and has been living with the virus for nearly twenty years and has seen 134 friends and acquaintances die from AIDS-related causes.
HIV began to spread rapidly on Roatan after Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, when thousands of mainland Hondurans, left homeless and destitute by the storm, moved to Roatan seeking jobs in tourism and development boom. Unable to find even the most menial employment because they could only speak Spanish (islanders speak both English and Spanish on Roatan), many turned to prostitution, fueling an already burgeoning rate of infection.
"My name is Scott Fried, I live in New York City, and his is what HIV looks like on a man," said Fried, addressing his audience--two young mothers breast-feeding their infants and a group of young toughs in stiff new blue jeans chain-smoking cigarettes. He reassured them that you can't get AIDS from a child who is infected with HIV. Fried, who is gay, also told them what it had been like to tell his conservative Jewish parents that he had the virus.
By the end of the evening, some people where fighting back tears. They lined up to shake Fried's hand, grateful for the inspiration and small pile of free condoms.