Growing up in a small West Texas town, HIV and AIDS seemed like a world away and something that affected other people. There were never any real discussions, whether in school, or amongst friends, about what HIV and AIDS meant, aside from the strictly clinical definitions. Statistics now tell us that someone I knew probably was affected, but because of the stigma of having HIV/AIDS (something that remains prevalent in the Latino community) it wasn't until Pedro Zamora that many of us were able to hear and see someone say they were HIV positive. On World AIDS Day, we had opportunity to ensure that young people in every corner of the world understand what HIV/AIDS is, how to prevent its spread, and feel comfortable having a personal connection with their partner to be able to ask the hard questions and seek accurate information.
Since my time in that small town, we've come a long way in terms of HIV prevention and treatment -- but not far enough. Young people continue to make up approximately 40 percent of all new infections worldwide, with Latinos disproportionately affected. In the U.S., there are approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, including approximately 220,000 Latinos, accounting for one in five new HIV infections in the U.S., a rate nearly three times as high as that of whites.
The truth is, HIV/AIDS is everywhere, including small town USA. For example, a two-year study conducted by the Deep South Project and the Latino Commission on AIDS found that in seven southern states, HIV infection and AIDS cases "are rising at an alarming rate among Latino populations, while prevention education lags behind" and that there continues to be barriers to access for health care if/when the infection is detected.
So what can we do? First, Latinos have to be educated. Plannedparenthood.org serves as a trusted source of information, receiving approximately 33 million visits every year -- where you can find valuable information about how to prevent HIV, where to get tested, and information on a range of reproductive health issues. Next, if you haven't been tested, get tested and encourage the young adults in your life to do the same. Teens and young people in their 20's account for 75 percent of Planned Parenthood patients, and in 2011 alone, Planned Parenthood health centers conducted 680,000 confidential HIV tests, a 16 percent increase over the number of tests in 2010. Each year, Planned Parenthood health centers provide more than four million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and provide a range of safer sex options, including condoms, which when used correctly and consistently, are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV. Finally, know your rights. Under the Affordable Care Act's preventive health benefits, millions of Americans will have access to no co-pay HIV education and screening services.
There is no reason why any small town boy or girl should feel that HIV/AIDS is a world away. It's not, and I don't want them to wait to find out just how close it really is until it's too late.