By Dr. Jose Castillo-Mancilla
Hispanic/Latinos are the fastest growing minority ethnic group in the United States, accounting for 17 percent of the current population. This is projected to increase to 31 percent by 2060. As we celebrate the National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, it is time to think about how HIV/AIDS affects the Hispanic/Latino community in the US and what can you do to stop it.
The CDC indicates that more than 95,000 U.S. Hispanic/Latinos have died of HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic, and that this disease continues to affect us disproportionately. About 20 percent of the new HIV infections occur in individuals of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, both men and women, and the lifetime likelihood of being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in is higher for Hispanic/Latinos compared to whites. This also translates into a much more advanced disease stage once the diagnosis is made, which is fueled by factors such as lack of healthcare access, health illiteracy, poverty, stigma and misinformation. Altogether, these elements make our community more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, which is unacceptable.
The good news is that Hispanic/Latinos are strong and determined. We have demonstrated that we can move forward and defeat adverse circumstances, but we can only do this if we stand united and fight as one. This year’s National Latino AIDS Awareness Day goal is “Commit to Act.” The following are powerful actions you can take to gain control of your health and control of HIV.
Take action #1
If you do not know your HIV status, get tested today. Not knowing whether you have HIV is the main risk factor to develop AIDS and the main reason why you can infect others. Even if you do not think you are at risk, you should get tested at least once. This is no different than getting tested for diabetes or high cholesterol. If your healthcare provider does not offer you a test, ask for one. Knowing your status will help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Take action #2
If you are infected with HIV, get into care. Once you have been diagnosed, it is time to act and see a healthcare provider. You may feel fine and think you can wait, but starting treatment early is the best you can do to remain healthy and protect others. The longer treatment is delayed, the longer it will take to control the virus and recover your immune system. Every day you delay care is a day you are at risk.
Take action #3
If you are in care, stay in care. There is little benefit on seeing you provider once and not following up. Multiple estimates indicate that only 40 percent of HIV-infected individuals in the US remain in care. This is a real problem because it puts you at risk for advanced disease and of infecting others. If you have difficulty keeping appointments or face barriers, ask for help. Many community-based organizations can help you “navigate the system” so that you can get healthy and stay healthy.
Take action #4
If you have been prescribed HIV medications, take your pills. The antiretrovirals are your bridge to health. By taking your medications, you can control the virus and become undetectable. This way, you can stop the progression from HIV to AIDS and you can reduce transmission to others along with other safe sex practices such as condoms. If you have side effects from your medications, ask your healthcare provider and together you can find a treatment option that will be best for you.
Take action #5
If you want to help, participate in research studies. Studies have shown very little participation from Hispanic/Latinos in HIV research, which limits our understanding of the disease in our ethnic group. Clinical trials are excellent ways to find out which treatments are the best and to develop new treatment strategies to control the virus, and new research is aiming at curing HIV. If you do not know about HIV research, ask your healthcare provider or visit the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Network’s website http://actgnetwork.org/trials_open_enrollment. Since 1987, the ACTG has conducted studies to find more effective and better tolerated anti-HIV medications. The Network also researches common co-infections people living with HIV also face including hepatitis C virus and tuberculosis. Participating in research is the best way for you to help future generations and fight back against HIV/AIDS.