Why Are Latinos at Higher Risk of HIV?

Education and prevention advocates are trying hard to overcome some social and cultural barriers, but the reason for the risk rates are varied.

BY Trudy Ring

October 22 2013 10:50 AM ET UPDATED: March 07 2014 7:57 PM ET

As HIV prevention campaigns increasingly reach out to Latinos, it’s a 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,” says Illiana Gilliland, director of care at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. 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.
 
Stigma is definitely a factor, says 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. “That stigma hasn’t gone away in 30-some years,” she says.
 
While there is great diversity within this population, some Latinos 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. Though Latinos represent 17% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 20% of new HIV diagnoses in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Latino men are three times as likely as white men to have HIV, and Latino women four times as likely.
 
Education can do much to address the situation, but it’s not always readily available, to Latinos or anyone else. “We don’t have compulsory sex education in this country,” says Davis, adding that such education belongs in every middle and high school. Without it, she points out, “people just don’t have accurate information”—about how HIV is transmitted, proper condom use, the availability of the female condom, or existence of treatments that keep HIV from being a death sentence. Gilliland concurs, saying, “There is still a lot of misinformation out there.”
 
There are several educational efforts going on, however, such as the Univision TV network’s HIV awareness initiative and the CDC’s recently launched Reasons/Razones campaign, aimed particularly at Latino gay and bisexual men, an especially hard-hit group, reminding them of the many reasons to be tested and the actions everyone can take to prevent the transmission of HIV. The campaign uses print, outdoor, and online advertising as well as social media, with a Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag, #ShareReasons.
 
Davis notes that social media can play an important role, especially in reaching young people. Whatever the medium, she says, “we’ve got to get the word out.”

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