Natl Latino AIDS Awareness Day focuses on prevention, treatment and support

When he received devastating news, Marco Benjamin contacted his mother. It was 2008, and he had just completed a home HIV test and found out he was HIV positive. “I called her at 5 in the morning and said to Mami, I’m going to ruin your day,” he recalls.

Yet his reaction was unexpected. “She told me that she thought I was going to tell her that I was in jail. “Mi’jo, you’re not the first and you’re not going to be the last (to have HIV),” she said, “Benjamin said.” Then she made sure that I go to the doctor for treatment. “

Soon after, Benjamin quit his job as an architect to be able to continue his AIDS activism. These days he works with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in New York City and thanks his family for helping him through the initial shock of his diagnosis. Benjamin “tested” HIV positive to his brothers, cousins ​​and other family members, and they all accepted and supported him.

“My mom told me that if I have AIDS, then in a way so does she,” Benjamin said. “She promised that she was going to help me show me that I could live with HIV, and she did.

“I wish the support I received with my family, everyone in the world who is HIV positive, had,” Benjamin said. “It’s a shame they don’t.”

Today is National Latin American AIDS Awareness Day, which began in 2003 to raise awareness and prevent HIV / AIDS in the Hispanic community. The theme for this year is “You and I will overcome AIDS” (Tu y Yo Vamos A Derrotar al SIDA). The organizers hope that people will talk about HIV / AIDS, get tested and seek treatment if necessary.

Guillermo Chacon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, noted that today’s date was chosen for a reason. “When we launched this event, we chose October 15 because it is the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s a good way to remind people that we need to celebrate our legacy, but that we need to be proactive about health issues that affect our community, such as HIV / AIDS.

As the largest minority group in the United States, Latinos are disproportionately affected by HIV / AIDS.

Guillermo Chacon, Chairman of the Latino AIDS Commission, at a ceremony in New York City marking National Latin American AIDS Awareness Day.Latino Commission on AIDS

An estimated 220,000 Latino Americans are living with HIV. At some point in their life, 1 in 36 Latin American men and 1 in 106 Latin Americans will be diagnosed with HIV.

Chacon uses the analogy of trying out a new restaurant to discuss how Latinos access HIV / AIDS care. “If you go to a new restaurant and the service is terrible, you will probably never go back. Apply this concept to a gay young man visiting an unfamiliar clinic or a new doctor who is not welcoming. They may turn around and never come back. He noted that unfortunately homophobia, fear, marginalization and isolation can be part of the journey of a person seeking medical treatment or answers about HIV / AIDS. “So we need to change the mindset of primary care providers and institutions so that all people, including Latinos, feel welcome and are not afraid.”

This year’s National Latin American AIDS Awareness Day follows new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that has shown both good and bad news for Latinos. While there has been an overall decline in new HIV diagnoses among Latinos in recent years, diagnoses have increased among Latino men who have sex with men. In 2013, the HIV diagnosis rate among Latinos was almost three times that of whites.

An estimated 220,000 Latino Americans are living with HIV, and 15% of Hispanics infected with the virus don’t know it, according to a CDC epidemiologist.

Dr Kenneth Dominguez, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, told NBC News that 15% of Latinos with HIV don’t know they are infected. At the individual level, the CDC recommends the use of condoms and the PReP program, while encouraging physicians to make HIV testing an integral part of care.

Oriol Gutierrez Jr., editor of POZ and Tu Salud magazine, said educating the Latin American community about HIV / AIDS is a critical but complicated task. “It’s a multi-level problem, so there must be multi-level solutions; there are a lot of moving parts, ”he said. “One of the problems is that young men are not informed. There is a lack of comprehensive sex education nationwide, and very little is taught about HIV transmission. There is unfortunately a lack of knowledge among young people in terms of transmission. He noted that undocumented and immigrant populations face linguistic and cultural barriers in accessing health care.

Several prominent Hispanic celebrities have openly stated that they are living with HIV, including the late Pedro Zamora (of MTV The Real World), ice skater Rudy Galindo and Mondo Guerra of Project Runway.

Bethsy Morales of the Hispanic Federation speaks in New York about the importance of getting tested for HIV.Latino Commission on AIDS

But the stigma surrounding HIV / AIDS in the Latin American community continues to upset health professionals and community advocates. “People understand that there are drugs and treatments available today, which means the risk of death is lower, so maybe there is less shame,” Gutierrez said. “But unfortunately, on the other hand, there is still a lot of judgment going on. There is the idea that if you are HIV positive you are a bad person, you are doing bad things. When you listen to this programming, it affects the way you think; that’s one of the reasons people don’t get tested. I’m saying, you don’t have to be a bad person to get HIV, that’s what people miss out on in the equation. It results from the fact that people are people. If and when we can move to a better place of understanding, a lot of the stigma will go away – or at least I hope so. “

“This is one of our challenges,” said Elvis Rosales, AIDS Project Los Angeles coordinator. “Anything sex-related makes people shut down, or it becomes a joke. Often people at risk do not identify themselves as such. In the Latino community, there are men who have sex with men who do not consider themselves to be homosexual. This makes it easy for them to slip through the cracks.

The sense of shame that surrounds HIV / AIDS, Rosales stressed, is very real. “When we handed out backpacks to our customers with our logo – which didn’t include the words ‘AIDS’ or ‘gay’ – we found out that they wouldn’t be wearing them, or that they returned them. “He said that in his work it was not difficult to make a connection between people in need of treatment and health care. “What’s difficult is retention – making sure they go back to the doctor and are on a consistent diet.”

Unlike other Latinos, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act. However, low-income immigrants with and without documentation living with HIV are eligible for health and support services under the Ryan White Act.

Despite the current challenges, Guillermo Chacon of the Latino AIDS Commission is optimistic about the future. “I have been working on HIV for over twenty years. I go to meetings, forums, and what gives me hope is knowing that the search for a cure is underway. It is a strategic element of the portfolios of leading scientific researchers.

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