As Latinos commemorate the ninth anniversary of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD) this Saturday -- 30 years after the first reported appearance of AIDS -- 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. More than 200,000 are Hispanics.
In New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic, the situation is even worse.
“The rate of HIV infection in New York City is three times the national average, and thousands of these patients are unaware they’re infected,” Melissa Ramirez, director of NLAAD and the Latino Commission on AIDS, told HuffPost LatinoVoices.
Among New York’s HIV-infected, the rate of infection in Latinos is higher than the national average.
“The community is especially affected by this epidemic; 32 percent of diagnosed cases and 35 percent of deaths are Latinos,” said Dr. Luz Amarilis Lugo, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist for The Mount Sinai Hospital HIV Clinic in New York.
According to the New York City HIV/AIDS Annual Surveillance Statistics, in 2009 there were 1,175 Latinos diagnosed with HIV and 283 diagnosed with AIDS out of 3,669 patients.
That year 568 Hispanics died from HIV or AIDS, of a total of 1,600. Only the rates among African Americans were higher, with 50.4 percent of diagnosed cases and 52.4 percent of deaths.
Latinos constitute 29 percent of the population of New York City.
Latinos also constitute 16.3 percent of the U.S. population, but account for some 20 percent of all new HIV infections nationally, according to a recent report by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The high incidence of HIV/AIDS-infected Latinos, Ramirez said, can be explained by “obstacles specific to the Latino community. If they aren’t being educated at home or school about HIV, then they aren’t going to know or have a desire to get tested.”
“Then, there is the myth that ‘it can’t happen to me’ and the stigma that only homosexuals get it," Ramirez continued. "The biggest challenges for us are immigration and language barriers; they don’t know that testing is confidential.”
Ramirez says that the organizers of NLAAD have been increasing their efforts to help the Latino community.
“If we can’t have people come to us, we go to them," she said. "Clinics and mobile units are the most effective and helpful. We even reach out to people in local bars, too.”
This month, NLAAD launched “Take the Train? Take the Test!,” a campaign advocating HIV testing which is taking place in 25 subway stations across all five boroughs, the first of its kind in New York City. Organizations like the Latino Commission on AIDS are promoting the project among Hispanics.
Last month, Mount Sinai’s downtown HIV Clinic -- formerly the St. Vincent’s HIV Program, with a 22-year history of taking care of patients with HIV -- moved to a new location in Chelsea, the neighborhood with the highest prevalence of HIV cases in the city.
Latinos represent more than half of the patients who visit the clinic, Dr. Lugo told HuffPost LatinoVoices.
“Many times our patients are undocumented and think that their status is going to be questioned, that we are going to call immigration services on them. They fear being identified and that they won’t receive the services they deserve,” said Lugo. “But we have an immigrant-friendly environment: bilingual social workers, front desk, case managers and patient navigators never ask our patients about their status.”
The clinic provides HIV testing, gives post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent new infections from those accidentally exposed, and has special programs to help best manage those most difficult to treat.
HIV Big Deal, an organization reaching out to gay male Latinos, has launched a scripted, dramatic HIV prevention video, reportedly the first of its kind. Titled "Ask Me, Tell Me / Preguntame, Dime," it has been evaluated and shown to reduce high-risk behavior for gay and bisexual men, according to Public Health Solutions, one of the country's largest public health institutes.
HIV Big Deal, according to its website, is a collaboration between Public Health Solutions and New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, designed to, “motivate gay men to have safer sex and to get tested.”
"This project is incredibly important as it is the first major bilingual intervention of its kind. It is crucial for prevention tools to be authentic and accessible,” said Mary Ann Chiasson, vice president of the Research & Evaluation team at Public Health Solutions.
“This is why HIV Big Deal was developed for online from the outset, and why we are also exploring other current and emerging technologies, including mobile."
Other groups are also focusing efforts on reaching Latinos online. In September, TheBody.com created a new HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Latinos. The site features Latino-focused articles and resources, in addition to relevant HIV/AIDS content that already existed on TheBody.com. Much of it is available in Spanish.
The site is putting a face on the epidemic by interviews with Latinos living with HIV, profiles of activists dedicated to ending the epidemic, bloggers and guest writers discussing their personal experiences with HIV, and reports examining the obstacles Latinos face, such as machismo and anti-gay stigma. All the initiatives have one goal: educate the Latino community, reduce stigma, and encourage everyone to get tested.
“Knowledge is power. Get tested,” encouraged Lugo. “Everyone should know their HIV status.”
"Ask Me, Tell Me / Preguntame, Dime