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Officials Battle to Stop Rapid Spread of AIDS Among US Hispanics - 2002-10-15

Hispanics make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 20 percent of HIV and AIDS cases in the country. Public health workers recently addressed the subject at a conference of Latin American gay organizations held in Miami.

A multitude of initiatives have been launched to slow the spread of the HIV virus among U.S. Hispanics.

Victor Martinez, an HIV counselor for the Los Angeles-based non-profit group "Bienestar", or "well-being", says the battle to contain HIV in Hispanic communities is hindered by many factors, including economics.

Mr. Martinez says, for most low-wage Hispanics, economic survival is their first priority. He says they are not inclined to take a day off work to get tested for HIV.

Other factors are cultural. Steven Diaz, who advocates on behalf of migrant farm workers in the United States, says many Latin Americans are misinformed about HIV and fool themselves into believing they are not at risk.

Mr. Diaz says, in Latin culture, sex between men is almost never discussed. He says many Hispanic men who have sex with other men do not identify themselves as gay, they do not believe they are at risk for HIV.

HIV counselor Victor Martinez says fear of the disease and its consequences only complicates matters. He says, when someone reveals they have HIV, the first question everyone asks is: how was it acquired? He says, with other diseases, like cancer, there is compassion. But with HIV and AIDS there is a stigma; people are judged. Mr. Martinez says the stigma is especially prevalent in Latin American communities.

Public health workers say this stigma leads to other problems. Paulo Gomez works for a group that distributes condoms in Mexico City. He says, rather than face up to the fact that they are HIV-positive, many infected people continue having unprotected sex, thereby spreading the virus.

Mr. Gomez says HIV positive people often struggle to come to terms with their condition. He says people go into denial, saying the virus may strike other people, but not them.

Among Hispanics, the HIV infection rate is highest for those who come to the United States in search of work. Studies show that migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere are 10-times more likely to test positive for HIV than the population at large.

Steven Diaz of the Washington-based Farmworker Justice Fund says migrant workers often have little or no access to condoms or health care of any sort, a situation that furthers the spread of HIV not only in the United States, but also in their native lands.

Mr. Diaz asks, what becomes of a migrant worker who becomes infected and then returns to his country of origin? He says many migrants go home to rural communities where support and treatment for AIDS sufferers is non-existent.

Los Angeles-based HIV counselor Victor Martinez says, ultimately, if the virus is to be contained, sexually-active people must protect themselves and get tested. But he knows that many Hispanics will not use condoms based on the dictates of the Catholic Church.

He also knows that many fear being tested, preferring to live in ignorance than possibly learning of an HIV infection. Victor Martinez says, to a certain extent, he is battling human nature and people's natural dislike of being told what to do.

Mr. Martinez says, no matter how many times government officials or HIV counselors tell people to use condoms, when someone is in bed, he will do what he pleases. Mr. Martinez says counselors can educate and offer people options, but ultimately people will make their own decisions about sexual practices.