SAN YSIDRO, Calif. – AIDS rates in the nation’s Latino community are increasing and, with little notice, have reached what experts are calling a simmering public health crisis.
Though Hispanics comprise about 14 percent of the U.S. population, they represented 22 percent of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses tallied by federal officials in 2006.
So far, the toll of AIDS in the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority population has mostly been overshadowed by the epidemic among blacks and gay white men. Yet in major U.S. cities, as many as one in four gay Hispanic men has HIV, a rate on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
Blacks still have the highest HIV rates in the country, but language difficulties, cultural barriers and, in many cases, issues of legal status make the threat in the Hispanic community unique. For those who arrived illegally, in particular, fear of arrest and deportation presents a daunting obstacle to seeking diagnosis and treatment.
“Officials need to stop downplaying or ignoring what’s happening among Latinos,” said Oscar De La O, president of Bienestar, a Latino service organization. “We are at the center of the storm.”
Even with the United States embroiled in a fierce debate over immigration policy, the problem of AIDS and Latinos has received scant attention from political and public health officials. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where only two of 17 approved HIV programs target Hispanics, officials have added Spanish-language hotlines, confidential testing sites and other initiatives aimed at filling the gap.
“Hispanics are overrepresented in this epidemic, and we need to target our efforts to them,” said CDC epidemiologist Kenneth Dominguez.
Officials do not have a precise tally of HIV infection nationwide, because many states have not reported figures to the CDC. The 22 percent, a figure that has not been previously released, includes 33 states and Puerto Rico, but not California, where more than 37 percent of the population is Hispanic.
“You combine the economic pressures, loneliness and immigration worries, and it pushes these individuals to be a hidden population,” said Frank Galvan, of the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
The consequences, however, go well beyond the Hispanic community. If the United States does not begin to “make a dent” in the swelling crisis of HIV among Hispanics, Galvan said, “it will continue to spread to other populations.”