District Fights Its Own AIDS Battle

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Each week, counselors from La Clínica del Pueblo in the District visit laundromats, day labor centers and other sites frequented by Latino men. Their mission is to educate a segment of the populace that is known for an extremely high rate of AIDS -- and for a strong cultural resistance to acknowledging it.

According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Hispanics in the District have the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country, about 109.2 per 100,000 people. The area's regional rate is much lower -- 27.2 in Maryland and 18.8 in Virginia -- but local health experts say it is rising there, too.

"The epidemic is growing where our community is growing, in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs," said Catalina Sol, director of AIDS/HIV programs at La Clínica. "Among Latinos, there is a cultural value that men must be strong. Having an illness is seen as a weakness, so men are much less likely to seek HIV testing and health services."

The majority of AIDS cases at La Clínica involve men who have had sex with men, including young Latinos who meet on the Internet rather than in traditional settings such as bars. Although the clinic distributed more than 7,000 free condoms last year, officials said it is harder to find and counsel people who meet in private.

As a result, Sol said, the level of HIV/AIDS among local Latinos is being underestimated. She said that about half of clinic patients with newly diagnosed HIV already have AIDS, which means they were infected some time ago without seeking tests or help.

At the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District, officials said that they have not seen a recent surge in AIDS cases among Latinos, but that the already high numbers reflect a wider problem of HIV/AIDS in the District, where 1 in 20 residents is HIV-positive. Spokesman Chip Lewis also expressed concern about the reluctance of Latino men to discuss the issues of AIDS and homosexuality.

"Our Latino clients tell us that the stigma in their community is so strong about HIV and AIDS, about men having sex with men, that there is very little dialogue about the issue and how to protect yourself," he said. "People try to sweep it under the rug, and the silence only feeds the fuel of the epidemic."

-- Pamela Constable

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