Robrt L. Pela

Getting the word out about HIV/AIDS

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Irma Benitez’s doctor refused to tell her she’d tested positive for HIV.

“My brother told me,” the 32-year-old Tijuana-born schoolteacher remembers. “He took me to see the doctor after my husband died, and the doctor called my brother with the test results. I am a woman, so I am invisible.”

Also, she says, she’s an outcast. Told as a child that AIDS was a disease only harbored by “prostitutes and sinners,” she found it difficult to talk to her family and friends. She moved to a mostly Hispanic community outside Dallas, Texas, “to get better treatment for the AIDS,” she explains. “I joined a Spanish-speaking church, and I met with the priest, and he said, ‘Let us pray for forgiveness for your sin.’”

Irma never returned to the church.

“The doctors here are better than in Tijuana,” she says. “I have disability benefits from my job and a Spanish-language support group for help.”

But what Irma really wants is answers. “How come my support group is the biggest one at the center where we meet?” she wonders. “Are there really more Latinos with AIDS than any other group?”

Much has been made lately of reports on the increasing number of Latinos in America – especially as National Latino AIDS Awareness Day approaches on October 15 – about how the current rate of population growth in the United States is being driven by the Latino community, whose numbers will continue to grow.

But while Latinos account for 15 percent of the American population, they make up a more sobering 18 percent of people living with HIV. Worse yet, 19 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in the U.S. are Latino men and women. That means that the rate of AIDS diagnoses among Latino men and women is three and four times higher, respectively, than their Anglo counterparts. 

Today, approximately 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS in the United States, including more than 205,000 Latinos. According to a new HIV incidence report released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latino men who have sex with men have moved from being the fourth most impacted population to being third; African American gay men continue to dominate new HIV infections, followed by Anglo gay men, Latino men and African American women.

The devastating impact of HIV and AIDS on the American Latino community affects not only the health of Latino communities but the wellbeing of the nation as well. But why, this many years into the global AIDS crisis, are a disproportionate percentage of Latinos being affected?

There are several reasons, according to Dr. Louis Velasco, an attending physician at Gilbert Hospital who sees many Hispanic patients who don’t know the first thing about AIDS and its transmission. People of color in America are, unfortunately, more likely to earn below the national poverty level, which often means a more limited access to quality health care. A potential for increased rates of incarceration among minority groups also contributes, because HIV tends to spread more rapidly among prison populations. Finally, the importance placed on traditional masculine roles in much of Hispanic culture serves to further increase risk factors among same-sex encounters in this demographic.

As scary as all these numbers are, what’s even more alarming is the potential for an ongoing increase among Latinos with HIV and AIDS. Currently, one in five children under the age of 18 in America is Latino – and 13 percent of new infections in the United States are among people aged 13 to 24. Because young people often consider themselves immortal and aren’t as keyed in to issues of health, they’re more likely to be at increased risk of infection. And according to a recent survey of 21 major U.S. cities, more than half of the Latino youth infected with HIV were aware of their status before seroconverting to AIDS. 

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