Fighting HIV In Latinx Communities

HIV Test Van

October 15 is National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day. It is an excellent time to look at the challenges Latinos and undocumented immigrants in Florida face with HIV/AIDS. Despite the great strides made in fighting the HIV epidemic, the ongoing health crisis still disproportionately affects the Latinx community at a much higher rate.

“National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day is important because Hispanics are like Latin X people represent 18% of the U.S. population that they are 26% actually of all new HIV diagnoses,” said Robin Lewy, Director of Programming, Rural Women’s Health Project. “That, to me, is staggering because I think that reflects a slow movement in recognition of the impact of HIV amongst our people.  I think historically, we focus only on white gay men, then we only focus on black gay men or MSMs, and we forget that HIV can attack any of us.”

Here are some relevant statistics:

  • Latinx people represent 18% of the U.S. population, but 26% of all HIV infections. (Avert – Global Information on HIV/AIDS)
  • Approximately 1 in 6 Latinx people living with HIV are unaware they have HIV due to a lack of education about the disease or testing resources. (Centers for Disease Control)
  • From 2005 to 2014, Latinx men who have sex with men (MSM) saw a 24% increase in new HIV diagnoses while white MSM saw an 18% decline. (NPR, 2/25/16)

In Florida, the numbers are even more sobering.  The rate of new HIV infections among Hispanics is rising.  According to the Florida Department of Health:

  • 24% of persons living with an HIV diagnosis in Florida in 2018 were Hispanic/Latino
  • 34% of persons who received an HIV diagnosis in Florida in 2018 were Hispanic/Latino.
  • 24% of persons who received an AIDS diagnosis in Florida in 2018 were Hispanic/Latino

When it comes to turning the tide on new infections, knowing the complexity of the Latinx community is vital. Hispanics/Latinos now make up almost 1 in 4 Floridians. That’s up from 1 in 6 a decade ago. 

Latino Floridians have roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, and many other countries. 

“The communities I serve don’t consider themselves Latinx, Latino, or Hispanic,” Lewy said. “They're Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, that's who they are. They are not Latinx. Latinx is a fancy way of siloing people. And my concern has been that the siloing is what allows epidemics to break out in new areas. Many of the people that we work with are immigrants. So we're not just talking about like, the Latino population on South Beach, we are talking about immigrants, who are new arrivals, with great challenges because of documentation, and lack of awareness of protocols.”

Understanding everyone is at risk for HIV is a small part of the work performed by the Rural Women’s Health Project (RWHP). The organization works with many immigrants in rural areas. 

“I can tell you that in rural areas, whether you're in Southern Florida or Northern Florida, there's a lack of testing in those communities. People want to test the LGBTQ community versus the general population. You can't judge a book by a cover, right? So we don't know what people do privately. We know that all of us have the same probability of becoming infected if we're not informed if we're not taking precautions and if we're not proactive.” 

Because men are more likely to contract HIV than women, they are tested more often. That leads to women being under-tested, and in many cases, not tested at all. 

“The least amount of testing is done amongst women in the United States,” Lewy said. “In our area, those who are white have to fight to be tested for HIV. If you're black, they test you right away. If you're Latino, they don't even ask you because they don't have translators.“

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Beyond gender issues, money is the great equalizer when it comes to having access to adequate health care.  Monthly HIV treatment regimens range from $2,000 to $5,000 — much of it for drugs. The CDC estimates about half of the people diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. don’t receive regular health care. Of those who do, less than half receive Medicaid, and about a quarter are uninsured. 

“One of the things that the RWHP focuses on is helping people find medical homes,” Lewy said. “We believe that medical care should be between an individual and their provider. We’re thrilled doing health education and access to care. But we believe that once we get people, that's where their education should happen. That's where good health care should take place. So if you're an immigrant and if you are undocumented, you're very limited in where you can access care. And first of all, you're just mortified. I mean, you're just afraid to access care because of fears of deportation at the political moment.”

RWHP works with funding from Gilead to reduce the HIV epidemic. It employs women living with HIV to become community health workers. 

“They're not just community health workers about HIV; they're just community health workers,” Lewy said. “We're there to link them to care. We hold people's hands and if it's not health care that they're worried about at that moment, but they're about to be evicted, we work with them in order to figure out their housing situation because if that's not stabilized, again, they're at higher risk for doing what they need to survive, which could put them at risk for HIV. So this approach does two things. One, we're working to build the skills and the future, opportunities for women living with HIV, which are limited in rural areas. The second is we're going into rural communities, and we're making sure that people are getting linked to the care that we believe helps to diminish their risk.”

You can learn more about the RWHP here: