Technology can help stem the spread of HIV in Latino communities
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Each year on the last day of Hispanic Heritage month, the community recognizes Latino Aids Awareness Day in acknowledgement of the impact of HIV and AIDS on the Latino community. In spite of overall declines in diagnoses of HIV within the United States in the last decade, the rates of infection continue to increase within the Latino community.

Latino men and women represent only 17 percent of the population but account for 23 percent of all HIV diagnoses within the U.S. Between 2005 and 2014, rates of infection among Latinas saw a large decline (35 percent), but continued to rise among men (24 percent). These increases were due in large part to challenges in reducing HIV among gay and bisexual men.

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While rates of infection stabilized among other groups between 2010 and 2014, white gay men saw a 6 percent decrease and black gay men saw less than a one percent increase, diagnoses of HIV increased 13 percent among gay and bisexual Latinos. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, if current trends persist, 1 in 4 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.

Fueling the rapid spread of infection within the community is the cultural stigma attached to HIV testing. Testing is the only way to ensure individuals are free of STDs and not spreading infections to their partners. Although in their best interest, many Latinos will avoid testing in fear of being discriminated against because of an HIV-positive status.

Since first being discovered in the eighties, the spread of HIV has partly been fueled by stigma. Once referred to as the “gay plague,” AIDS was dismissed as a disease caused primarily by lifestyle choices. Largely ignored because it was thought to affect only gay and bisexual men, the U.S. government refused to acknowledge or allocate resources towards the rapidly growing epidemic.  

Rampant homophobia accelerated the spread of the infection, as many scientists refused to research the cause of and possible treatments for the disease. Many of those infected were denied care by hospitals and doctors. By the time President Reagan first officially acknowledged the disease in 1987, thousands of Americans were infected with HIV and had died because of AIDS. Years later, his Administration would be accused of ridiculing individuals with AIDS.

In recent years, attitudes towards same-sex relationships have trended towards the positive. While the stigma surrounding HIV has diminished, it still remains, and within the Latino community, cultural stigma is fueling the spread of infection. Attitudes stemming from religious conservatism resulting in negative views towards sex and discrimination against same-sex relationships, dissuades many from seeking testing, counseling and treatment.

Stigma results in dangerous feedback loops, causing many not to seek beneficial screening in fear that doing so will cause them to be suspected of engaging in stigmatized behavior, such as having same-sex relationships and injecting drugs.

This internalized and perceived stigma manifests itself in dangerous ways. According to a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the psychological distress caused by stigma associated with their ethnicity and sexual identity caused many Latino gay and bisexual men to participate in sexual situations that increase their risk of having unprotected sex with casual partners. Engaging in these activities as a temporary escape from the shame and depression caused by internalized fears of societal, even familial rejection.

While individualized and societal stigma that causes the prevalence of HIV within the Latino community may be hard to overcome, approaches to testing and providing treatment are easier to change. In recent years, at-home STD testing services have launched, providing a discreet and accessible option for those who are too ashamed to visit a clinic or see a doctor for screening. Companies like GetTested.com allow individuals to test for the most common STDs, including HIV, syphilis, and gonorrhea, from the privacy of the their own homes.

Technology allows for discretion and anonymity even in medicine. According to the NIH, because of the stigma of an HIV-positive status, Latinos have the longest delays between diagnosis and accessing care. Telemedicine grants individuals access to physicians in private. Individuals who receive an HIV-positive result from GetTested.com receive a complimentary initial consultation from a member of the company’s physician network. Ensuring individuals get the care they need.  

Behavioral changes have been vital to stemming the spread of HIV since the beginning of the epidemic. Promoting condom use and encouraging social norms around safe sex succeeded in reducing the prevalence and incidence of HIV in the last three decades. The convenience and accessibility of private testing allows it to be easily integrated into everyday life, helping reduce the large number of people in the U.S. who are unaware of their HIV status.

Although more must be done to overcome societal stigmatization, addressing individual concerns such as discretion and privacy can encourage not only initial but repeated and regular testing. While changes in the way medicine is delivered can help alleviate the burden of HIV on the Latino community, more must be done to battle stigma and discrimination associated with being HIV-positive in order to gain real progress.

Hannah Dela Cruz is the public relations manager for GetTested.com. 


 

 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.