12/01/2011 06:47 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Latinos Must Take A Stand Against HIV/AIDS

Health is a right that belongs to everyone, and that includes the opportunity to live a life free of HIV/AIDS. Yet for millions of people around the world, lack of access to education and services means that right is denied, the opportunity inaccessible. December 1 is World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV and support investments in global health.

The United States has been, and must remain, a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the promotion of women's health globally. One of the best ways to do this is by providing an integrated approach, offering family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention and services in the same health centers around the world. After all, couples use condoms to prevent both unintended pregnancy and infections; and women seeking HIV/AIDS treatment also have family planning needs. Combining these programs saves time, money, and lives in the U.S. and in developing countries with already overburdened health care systems.

However, support for lifesaving programs is under attack. Opponents of women's health continue to slash U.S. investments in family planning overseas, have tried repeatedly to end U.S. contributions to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and introduce further restrictions on how funding can be spent. Many in Congress also oppose foreign aid investment overall, including U.S. leadership in combating HIV/AIDS globally. These programs make up less than one percent of the federal budget, yet the politicians trying to eliminate foreign aid and family planning will make the case that by doing so we are saving money. Even in an economic crisis, funding for international development and lifesaving health services should not be cut. This is not the place to try to balance the budget.

Thankfully, the incidence of HIV is on the decline, but rates of new infection remain unacceptably high, especially in Latino communities in the U.S. There are approximately 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in this country, including more than 205,000 Latinos.
Latinos account for one in five new HIV infections, at a rate nearly three times as high as that of whites, and the AIDS diagnosis rate for Latinas is five times higher than for white women. One in 36 Latino men and one in 106 Latina women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. A number of factors, including limited access to health care and language barriers contribute to high HIV infection rates. What's more, Latinos are the least likely of all ethnic groups to be insured, making it difficult to obtain sexual and reproductive health care, which limits awareness about the risks of infection and opportunities for counseling, testing, and treatment.
In addition, our community is reluctant to talk about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and safer sex, as these remain cultural taboos. And many Latinos may also avoid seeking testing, counseling, or treatment out of fear of discrimination or immigration status. Undocumented immigrants are even less likely to access HIV prevention services, get an HIV test, or receive treatment and care if living with HIV.

Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country and our partners around the world are dedicated to addressing these health disparities and ensuring access to quality services for women, men, and young people. Planned Parenthood health centers offer testing and HIV/AIDS prevention services in the same settings as family planning and other health services.

Through a model based on a Latin American system of "promoters," or community health workers, Planned Parenthood promotores reach Latinos throughout the country, serving as educators and ambassadors who provide their neighbors, friends, and families with health education and connect them to high-quality, low-cost services in their communities. Promotores reach community members and start conversations about health in a culturally and lingusitcally appropriate manner. In Connecticut, for example, promotores target Latino men between the ages of 15 and 45, distribute marketing materials to encourage men in the community to seek STI testing at Title X centers, and visit farms to provide on-site HIV testing to migrant workers. Whether in Latin America or the U.S., promotores play a vital role in ensuring that underserved and hard-to-reach communities can access HIV/AIDS education, testing, and treatment.

On World AIDS Day 2011, we must stand strong as a global community to eliminate health disparities and arm communities with the tools they need to protect themselves. We must have more candid conversations about safer sex and how to keep ourselves healthy, both in our communities and in our homes. We know what works and how to prevent new infections. The key to our success is taking every opportunity to provide people with the education and supplies they need to stay healthy, and that includes access to condoms, family planning, and quality information and services.