A new report by the CDC shows a nationwide increase in HIV cases among gay and bisexual Latino men [up 20 percent] as well as gay and bisexual men ages 25 to 34 [up 35 percent].
Unfortunately, it’s nothing new to Luigi Ferrer, HIV/AIDS rights activist and director of health services for Pridelines in Miami, and others who pay close attention to the disease.
Ferrer said teenagers aren’t being properly educated about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and that is resulting in those same teenagers contracting the disease later in life or earlier.
“I’m not saying that [schools and government] are 100 percent responsible [for not educating them] but it’s got to be a factor. It’s very troubling because these are young people in the prime of their lives.” He added that he’s lost track of the number of times young people have asked him questions about STDs that they should have learned the answer to in school. “We can’t expect them to protect themselves.”
Ferrer cited another study, done by the state, that shows rates for gay and bisexual African Americans and Latinos ages 21 to 29 doubled between 2012 and 2015. “It’s a straight line going up,” Ferrer said.
Dr. Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud in Miami-Dade and Wilton Manors, also isn’t surprised.
“The CDC report documents on a national level what we’ve seen occurring here in South Florida. We’re diagnosing record numbers of Latino clients with HIV, often new infections in people who had thought that they were at little risk. Many of our clients came from countries that provided no sex education, and certainly not education about how gay and bisexual men can stay safe. Those infected often don’t know how to access care, especially if they are uninsured. Many came from countries where real medical care was only available to the wealthy,” Fallon said.
He said that new HIV cases in South Florida have increased nine percent among Latino gay and bisexual men, while dropping amongst black and white men.
“Last year the CDC predicted that if current trends hold, one half of black gay men and one quarter of Latino gay men will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Here in South Florida, we’re especially concerned because Latino gay men on average are only living half as long after an AIDS diagnosis as their non-minority peers. In a word, the house is on fire, and we just don’t have enough ‘engines’ yet in South Florida to contain the epidemic of HIV,” Fallon said.
“Latinos Salud opened in Broward nine years ago. Because of the urgent need in South Florida, we added another location in South Beach in 2014. We’ll do whatever we can to make it easier for gay Latinos, their partners, and any guy living with HIV to access education, testing, and linkage to care services. Last year, we launched a part time location in Kendall, an underserved region in Miami Dade’s central corridor. We expect to expand those operations to full time this year. More firemen to put out the fire of HIV.”
To combat the spread of the disease, Fallon said Latinos Salud provides free counseling and community support groups, youth groups, and walk-in HIV/STD screenings. The organization also provides free condoms and lubricant to over three dozen community partner businesses throughout South Florida, and has devised its own client-centered program – DiversiSafe.
“DiversiSafe is a client-centered approach that gives clients the tools to either reduce their risk of getting HIV, or their risk of progressing to AIDS if they are living with HIV,” he said. “While Latinos Salud has grown in recent years, our community’s needs are greater than our current staff can fully service. On the whole, South Florida is still underfunded for HIV prevention and linkage services. The scope of the epidemic calls for far more troops in the field.”
But while some groups have seen a rise in infection rates, the CDC study also found decreases –
56 percent among people who inject drugs, 36 percent among heterosexuals, 18 percent among young gay and bisexual males ages 13 to 24, and 18 percent among white gay and bisexual males.
“The nation’s new high-impact approach to HIV prevention is working. We have the tools, and we are using them to bring us closer to a future free of HIV,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a statement. “These data reflect the success of collective prevention and treatment efforts at national, state and local levels. We must ensure the interventions that work reach those who need them most.”
The CDC credits a large part of the decreases to treatment with antiretroviral medications that are able to manage the disease and reduce a person’s risk of transmitting it to others. Also cited was the use of PrEP, a pill that people without HIV can take to reduce their risk of infection from sex by more than 90 percent.
“Maximizing the power of these new prevention tools in conjunction with testing and education efforts, offers the hope of ending the HIV epidemic in this nation,” said Eugene McCray, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, in a statement. “Science has shown us the power of HIV treatment medicines in benefitting people with and without HIV.”
But while the AIDS Healthcare Foundation [AHF] is pleased with the decreases, it criticized the CDC report for not mentioning condoms.
In an email response to an inquiry by SFGN, the CDC responded.
“There is a wide range of HIV prevention strategies. The presentation of HIV trends referenced some, but not all, of those strategies. The declines in annual HIV infections are likely primarily due to an increase in the number of people living with HIV who know their HIV status and are virally suppressed – meaning their HIV infection is under control through effective treatment. Condoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and choosing less risky behaviors are also among the many factors that can decrease someone’s chance of getting or transmitting HIV – and, in addition to an increase in the number of people whose HIV infections are diagnosed and virally suppressed, could also have contributed to current HIV trends,” wrote Sonia Singh, epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.