Why Are Latinos at Higher Risk of HIV?

Why Are Latinos at Higher Risk of HIV

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that — if HIV rates continue as they are, one out of every 4 Latino gay and bisexual men will become HIV-positive in their lifetime.

Though Latinxs represent 17 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 24 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available from the CDC. 

Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men have even higher rates of HIV, and, according to the CDC accounted for 84 percent of the HIV diagnoses among Hispanic/Latino men in 2014.

Those stats are a stark reminder that this population remains disproportionately affected by the virus—something that’s rooted in a variety of societal and cultural factors, HIV experts say.

“I think the biggest issue right now is stigma,” Illiana Gilliland, director of care at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago told us previously. Among some Latinos, there’s a fear that if they’re seen going in for an HIV test, they’ll be thought to be gay or promiscuous, she says, both of which have negative connotations in certain subsets of this population.

Cynthia Davis, an assistant professor at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, who has done much outreach work with Latino and other minority communities reiterated that sentiment. “That stigma hasn’t gone away in 30-some years.”

In our review of the HIV epidemic in three California counties we learned that the Fresno Latinx population has difficulty accessing medical care due to many reasons, including transportation, language, insurance, and financial barriers (and a culture of seeking medical intervention only for acute needs, rather than preventative care). These factors result in relatively high rates of HIV, and more disturbing, 36 percent of people with HIV in Fresno County were first screened after their disease had already progressed (27 percent were simultaneously diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, another 9 percent diagnosed with AIDS soon after, according to the county's 2013 Annual Communicable Diseases Report.

"We fail to recognize and fund efforts to address social determinants that impact HIV and continue to insist on talking about individual risk factors for Latinos," worries Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of the queer Latinx organization GALAEI, who told The Body, "When funding is only limited to getting someone tested and linked to care, we neglect that person's need for food, shelter, and clothing."

While there is great diversity within the Lantinx population, some face language barriers or may distrust the health care system, while those who are undocumented immigrants fear deportation, resulting in reluctance to be tested for HIV or seek treatment if they’re positive.

Education can do much to address the situation, but it’s not always readily available, particularly in Spanish. “This is the missing link,” Guillermo Chacon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, told New York’s Gay City News.

“We need to deliver a message in English to U.S.-born Hispanics and in Spanish for foreign-born Hispanics… Our marketing among Hispanics that [only speak Spanish] is extremely weak and inconsistent.”

Without that culturally competent education, many Latinx people don’t learn basic facts about how HIV is transmitted (and isn’t), proper condom use, the availability of female condoms, or the existence PrEP (the HIV prevention pill) or treatments that have transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease.

So, what’s being done to address these issues?  Beginning in 2011, the CDC awarded $11 million per year for five years to 34 community-based organizations to provide HIV testing to more than 90,000 young gay and bisexual men of color and transgender youth of color. The CDC recently announced their intentions to extend the program for another five years, but funding for it depends a great deal on who wins the 2016 election and therefore controls the nation’s purse strings.  

“Addressing the impact of HIV and AIDS in Latino/Hispanic communities requires a commitment from each of us,” Mondo Guerra, the HIV-positive fashion designer from Project Runway said earlier this week. “Raising awareness gives me hope to achieve an AIDS-free generation.” 

In communities across the nation, advocates are also employing unique approaches to reach the young gay and bisexual Latino men who are most at risk of becoming HIV-positive. For example, an Oakland, California project is exploiting the strong social networks in the “House Ball community,” to reach the African-American and Latinx men and transwomen who become informal families and compete in glamorous fashion show “Balls.” 

Our recommendation to individuals? Get educated, get tested, and get on HIV treatment (if you are poz) or consider PrEP (if you test negative).  Your health — and community — count on it. 

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