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Latinos and HIV

By Federico Martínez, Special to La Prensa

The number of Latinos testing positive for HIV/AIDS in Ohio are significantly outpacing other ethnic groups, but less than one half of the state’s Latino population is getting tested – a problem that is having devastating effects on the community, according to state health experts.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, rates of HIV are almost three times higher among Latino Ohioans than their white counterparts. Latinos account for 5 percent of Ohioans living with HIV, yet represent only 3 percent of the population.


Nuestra Gente founder Linda Parra

“In the City of Cleveland itself HIVAIDS cases involving Latinos represent 20 percent of the overall population,” said Dr. Henry NG, who specializes in medicine/pediatrics at Metro HealthCare in Cleveland, OH.  “In Cuyahoga County Latinos with HIV/AIDS cases for Latinos is 4.6 times higher than for white individuals. “What this means is that Hispanics are still having an overwhelming burden than the overall population.”

Latino/Hispanics also bear a disproportionate burden of HIV in the United States, representing 17 percent of the population but 21 percent of new HIV infections, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

Toledo-Lucas County has the fifth highest rate of persons known to be living with HIV/AIDS of any major metropolitan county in Ohio - 170 per 100,000, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control. Toledo is the fourth largest city in Ohio.

But the news isn’t as bad for Toledo/Lucas County’s Latino community, which makes up 6.4 percent of Lucas County and represents 7 percent of all AIDS cases in Lucas County, said Jerry Kerr, coordinator of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s HIV Prevention Program. In many other communities HIV/AIDS rates in the Latino community are disproportionately higher to the overall population, he said.

“If we get two people of Latino descent who test positive for HIV/AIDS in a year that would be serious cause for concern,” said Mr. Kerr. “This year we have had no reports.”


Latino Rates Higher

According to the Ohio Department of Health, overall state rates of HIV are almost three times higher among Hispanic/Latino Ohioans than their white counterparts.  Latinos account for 5 percent of Ohioans living with HIV, yet represent only 3 percent of the population.

The bigger picture problem is that the Latino/Hispanic community often doesn’t get tested right away, which causes other health problems such as liver failure, heart problems and ongoing infections, said Dr. NG, who addressed the issue during a Hispanic Health Forum held in Cleveland in October.

“In gets complicated,” said Dr. NG. “Social and economic factors have been identified as well as other potential factors such as cultural and linguistic.”

In Ohio, health specialists in Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo are working to address the problem by increasing outreach and education efforts.

The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department provides funding for several organizations to help, including Nuestra Gente, a nonprofit organization that provides Spanish-language programs throughout the community, including farmworker camps in Northwest Ohio.

“We provide health screenings at events, festival, even Mexican restaurants,” said Nuestra Gente founder Linda Parra, whose HIV/AIDS Latino outreach program also distributes free condoms and Spanish-language literature to people. “The big problem is that HIV/AIDS is a stigma in the community; people don’t like to talk about it.

“In the migrant camps men take them, but they don’t use them. The women are very quiet, but they usually they’ll take them. Sometimes they tell me they don’t need them.”


Myths and Challenges

The belief that women, especially married women don’t need condemns or to practice safe sex is a dangerous fallacy, said Ms. Parra and Dr. NG. Most women, especially in Latino and African American communities are infected by having unprotected sex with men.

National statistics confirm that men having sex with other men are still by far the leading cause of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS, according to the Center for Disease Control. That statistic is true for Latino/Hispanic males who are disproportionately more likely to become infected.

What makes the issue especially dangerous in the Latino community is that Latinos, especially Latino males don’t get tested, said Dr. NG. Of major concern is that, of the 1.1 million individuals living with HIV in the U.S., one in five doesn’t know they are infected.

There are several reasons for this including that 30 percent of Latinos in the United States lack health insurance, so they don’t seek healthcare right away.

The Latino Commission on AIDS, a national organization charged with providing education and awareness programs throughout the country, say other factors including homophobia, keeps people from visiting their doctor or confiding in friends or family when their sick.

Farmworkers, because of their transitory lifestyles often don’t have a family doctor, so wait until their illness becomes so bad they can’t put off going to a hospital or seeing a doctor. Other Latinos don’t seek health care because of language barriers or they fear deportation if they don’t have legal residency, according to the New York-based Latino Commission on AIDS.

The result: CDC dates shows that Latinos progress to AIDS faster than any other racial or ethnic group with 42 percent being diagnosed with AIDS in 12 months after learning of their positive HIV status.

“The good news is we’re testing more people than ever,” said Dr. NG. “The bad news is we’re testing them in hospitals and clinics when they already have full blown AIDS.”

That’s why self-esteem building activities are such a vital component to outreach efforts in Toledo, Columbus and Cleveland.

“What we’ve found is that low-income people don’t feel like they are on top of the heap,” said Mr. Kerr. “If they don’t feel valued they often don’t take care of themselves.


Growing Apathy

Health officials are also alarmed about the growing apathy many people now have about HIV/AIDS.

People have become less concerned because they hear doctors talk about how they can  live longer, healthier lives with drugs and treatment; it gives people a false sense of security, said Mr. Kerr.

Many people don’t realize that medication isn’t a cure, he said. People with HIV/AIDS still suffer from bone loss, advanced aging, liver failure, chronic heart problems and a weaker immune system which makes them more prone to get sick.

Toledo resident Diana Saunders, 53, can attest to that. Saunders, who discovered she was HIV positive 9 years ago when she became so ill that just walking, became a daily challenge. Ms. Saunders, who contracted the disease through unprotected sex, often shares her story to help educate people.

By the time she was tested, she had become paralyzed from the waist-down, which lasted for 7 months until medication helped her regain some mobility.  For years she had to take 18 pills twice per day to slow down the deterioration of her body and health.

She’s now takes just one pill per day, but suffers from severe pain all of the time. Pain medication can help ease the pain, but the side effects accelerate the decline in overall health.

“My legs and back are always hurting, but I try to take it,” said Ms. Saunders. “If I take any pain pills it costs me. I also get sick a lot easier and cough a lot.

“But overall I’m blessed; without the doctors and God it could be much worse.”

Copyright © 1989 to 2014 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 12/02/14 20:11:44 -0800.




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