By Karen Nieves-Lugo, PhD, MPH (Postdoctoral Fellow at George Washington University)
October 15th is National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day, and this year’s theme is “We’ll Defeat AIDS con Ganas!” But why is it important to talk about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the Latino community? Latinxs are disproportionally affected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—the virus that causes AIDS. Our community represents 17% of the total U.S. population, but accounts for 21% of all new HIV infections and 21% of people living with HIV.1 In addition, research shows that Latinxs are more likely to receive late diagnosis and HIV care compared to other races and ethnicities.2
Benita Ramírez3, a Honduran activist and poet living with HIV, wrote:
the sound of the wind
lifts my hair
of my old spirit
I learned to succeed.
Drawing inspiration from the title of Benita’s poem “Triumph,” the pathway to prevent new HIV infections is early detection and treatment of the disease in order to avert heath complications. By detecting HIV early and connecting to care, people living with HIV can have better quality of life and decrease the risk of transmission of HIV by adhering to treatment. While testing and treatment are steps an individual must decide to take on their own, we as a community should provide support wherever possible. Together we can make a difference.
What kind of action can we do?
Let’s start talking about HIV with our family, partner(s), friends, peers, and neighbors. Educating ourselves about HIV–how it is transmitted, how to practice safer sex, and how to use condoms–not only prevents new infections, but also empowers Latinxs to protect themselves. It’s also important to talk about HIV prevention with our youth because they are one of the most vulnerable groups in our community. Let’s talk to our teens about the ways to have safer sex to decrease their risk of getting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Fight stigma and discrimination. Negative attitudes about HIV can discourage Latinxs from seeking testing and treatment services. Some people avoid getting tested for HIV out of fear of being rejected or discriminated against. As a Latina, I know that a central value in our community is to take care of our loved ones and that should not exclude those living with HIV. Supporting your loved ones to seek testing, prevention, and treatment services is a way of honoring them and our community. If you are a leader in your neighborhood, start a dialogue about HIV and encourage your community to get tested. The support from our family, friends, peers, and community can ease the potential physical and emotional difficulties of living with HIV. By destigmatizing HIV and encouraging community members to get tested, we can make a difference in early detection and treatment. These are the most effective strategies to stop HIV in our community.
Ask to be tested for HIV. Raising our voices to get tested for HIV is an important prevention measure, even when we do not recognize having any risk factor (e.g. multiple partners, drug use, having unprotected sex). Research shows that over a third of Latinxs (36%) were tested for HIV late compared to 31% of Black and 32% of White populations4. Although receiving an HIV diagnosis is frightening, an early detection brings the opportunity to take care of ourselves preventing health complications and transmitting HIV to others.
You can talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested or visit community organizations that offer free and anonymous HIV testing. Many of these organizations have staffs who speak English and Spanish, understand our culture, and offer information about HIV prevention and access to care regardless of your immigration status.
Take action if you are HIV positive. When living with HIV, it is important to remain in regular care. As any other chronic disease (e.g. diabetes, hypertension) having regular treatment improves the quality of life, allowing people to live longer, healthier lives. Using medication as directed by your healthcare provider is beneficial for your health and reduces the risk of HIV transmission to others.
Together we can make a difference. In 2010, President Obama signed a National HIV/AIDS Strategy that outlines the principles, priorities, and actions needed to win the battle against HIV. The goals of this plan are: reducing HIV, incidence, increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes and reducing HIV-related health disparities5. Some of the strategies to achieve these goals are: increase HIV testing, adhere to HIV treatment and remain in care. We need to take advantage of that strategy and advocate for our community in order to fight against HIV. History has shown that when we are united as a community we can be successful, overcome obstacles, and gain respect through our work and social actions. I am confident that in this occasion we can also win the battle against HIV, stopping new HIV infections and improving the health of those Latinxs living with HIV. We have the power to change our history and make a difference in our community.
We want to hear from you – Tell us in the comments:
- What we can do as a community to fight against HIV?
- What do you do to encourage other Latinxs seeking testing and treatment services for HIV?
- What tools and strategies do you have to manage being HIV positive?
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Veronica Pinho and Maria Cecilia Zea for their encouragement in the development of this blog.
Karen Nieves-Lugo, PhD, MPH, was born and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. She obtained her doctoral degree in Psychology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and has a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences Campus. She is a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University, Department of Psychology. Dr. Nieves-Lugo’s research focuses on health disparities, aging, sexuality, and chronic diseases specifically examining the role of cultural, psychological and behavioral factors significant to HIV/AIDS. She has worked with Latino populations in research focused on: the experiences of sexual migration among Dominican gay men; the prevalence of eating disorders and body image among Puerto Rican college men; the relationship of gender roles and sexuality in the prevention of HIV infection among Puerto Rican heterosexual men; and the psychological and behavioral factors related to adherence to HIV medication among Puerto Rican men. She is a principal investigator in a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service postdoctoral fellowship (F32) award funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, where she is examining the relationship of depression and substance use (alcohol, tobacco and drug use) with physical function over time in HIV-infected veterans compared to uninfected veterans in VACS. Dr. Nieves-Lugo is a member of the District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), the MSM and Sexual Minorities CFAR Scientific Interest Group, the Mid-Atlantic CFAR Consortium of Latinos and HIV, the Physical Function Working Group, Veterans Aging Cohort Study, and the American Psychological Association divisions 20 and 44.
1 Center of Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Today’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/TodaysEpidemic-508.pdf.
2 Dennis, A. M., Napravnik, S., Seña, A. C., & Eron, J. J. (2011). Late entry to HIV care among Latinos compared with non-Latinos in a southeastern US cohort. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 53(5), 480-487.
3 Evers, L. (2010) “I´m black, I´m a woman and I am HIV positive. But I am going to make a difference”. Retrieved from https://www.trocaire.org/blogs/make-a-difference.
4 “Latinos and HIV/AIDS”. (2014, April 15). Retrieved from http://kff.org/hivaids/fact-sheet/latinos-and-hivaids/
5 “HIV/AIDS National Strategies”. (2010, July). Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/NHAS.pdf
Image source: Flickr user Elvert Barnes via Creative Commons