Activists thousands deep marched through the streets of Mexico City protesting discrimination against people living with HIV on the eve of the first world AIDS conference in Latin America, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The first International March Against Stigma was an effort to demand the end of discrimination against people living with HIV. Globally, AIDS continues to hit hard at marginalized communities like gay men, junkies, and sex workers. Only in a few countries, found mostly in Africa, is AIDS a mainstream disease.

The event drew a colorful crowd. One woman held up a sign that read in Spanish, “I Love My Gay Son,” another, “If your son came out of the closet, do not hide, come out as well.”

Some of the protesters called for universal access to antiretroviral drugs. Mexico has the 2nd highest number of HIV infections in Latin America after Brazil, according to figures by UNAIDS. Earlier this year, pharmaceutical companies were criticized for pricing drugs in Mexico beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

“[Pharmaceutical company] Merck charges six times as much for Stocrin in Mexico as it does in other Latin American and middle-income countries, a heartless business calculation that effectively makes this drug all but out of reach for nearly all those living with HIV/AIDS in Mexico,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in a statement announcing a new print ad called 'Shame on Merck'. The ads ran in several major U.S. newspapers in June.

Several discussions at the conference are expected to address HIV stigma and discrimination. One panel led by South African Justice Edwin Cameron is set to discuss the criminalization of HIV-positive people.

Around the world, HIV stigma – and outright homophobia – remain major obstacles for relief workers. “Homophobia – in all its forms – is one of the top barriers to ending this epidemic, worldwide. The fight against the epidemic is entering a new phase, and if governments and NGOs and international organizations like my own do not take up the fight for gay rights, and the rights of all people with diverse sexuality, we will not end AIDS,” said Peter Piot, a UNAIDS founding director.

The conference is set to open with a 12-year-old HIV-positive Honduran girl – Keren Dunaway Gonzalez. “When I speak to all these people, I'll ask them to support the fight against this illness, to give us medicine because it's expensive and to campaign more so children don't get infected,” she told AFP.

UNAIDS estimates 33 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Photo credit: Suzy Subways