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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Outreach Programs Expand Hispanics' Awareness Of HIV
By Erin Ailworth | Sentinel Staff Writer
June 27, 2003
For Felipe, deciding to get an HIV test was the first step. Accepting the positive results of his test is the next.
The Kissimmee man, however, who asked that his last name not be used, said not knowing was worse than getting tested.
Felipe is part of a growing awareness of HIV/AIDS among the state's Hispanics. More Hispanics in Florida are getting tested each year, using outreach programs such as today's National HIV Testing Day.
Many Hispanics still are uneasy talking about the human immunodeficiency virus or getting tested, experts say.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Hispanics comprise 17 percent of the state's population and 15 percent of the more than 90,000 AIDS cases reported through December 2002. Of more than 28,000 reported HIV cases, 16 percent were Hispanic. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, a disease that weakens the immune system.
While the number of Hispanics living with HIV/AIDS roughly mirrors the population figures, experts say reaching the community for testing is hard.
On top of a lack of awareness, many Hispanics still think only homosexuals and prostitutes get the disease, said Marisol Bruno, the community-relations and marketing manager for the Orange County Health Department.
Homosexuality is a touchy subject because it undercuts the macho-male image within the culture, said Bruno, who is Puerto Rican. Many Hispanics are RomanCatholic, and some do not believe in birth control, such as wearing condoms, which puts them at higher risk of contracting the disease, experts said.
To combat the problem, state and local organizations have expanded outreach and testing programs, said Marlene LaLota, program administrator in the Bureau of HIV/AIDS for the state health department. In conjunction with the national effort, county health departments across Florida plan to offer free HIV tests today.
The efforts have paid off, LaLota said. More than 51,500 Hispanics were tested last year, up from 46,000 in 2000. Still, she said, more can be done -- especially to combat the stigma.
That's what almost stopped Elizabeth, a south Orange County resident, from getting an HIV test.
"I thought that if people saw me going into this place, they would . . . assume that I was HIV-positive," said the Dominican woman, who requested that her last name not be used. Her test was negative. Elizabeth and Felipe agree that people need to get tested.
Anyone can be at risk, and health officials warn that a monogamous relationship is no guarantee against HIV/AIDS.
In addition, the disease can be passed through dirty needles and accidental contact with body fluids of an infected person. Experts recommend periodic testing.
Felipe said he is learning to cope with the infection with the help of counselors and friends.
"It's not the end of the world," he said. "I don't have to start writing my will."