The AIDS epidemic has shook the world from its outbreak during the 1980s. Although significant strides with medical advancements have surfaced, experts say the stigma associated with the disease still leads to a distorted sense of reality.

Vincent Leclercq of France demonstrates in front of the White House on Tuesday, July 24, as the International AIDS Conference continues in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

For Latinos, it’s a question of public image.

Mexican native and community health specialist Juan Pedro Cano, a counselor at the Resource Center Dallas clinic that focuses on prevention and testing in the Latino community, diagnoses an estimated 30 persons every month as HIV positive.

He told VOXXI the stigma of the disease is often the leading cause of transmission.

“The culture is very macho and a lot of people that have HIV being Latino have a problem of accepting or even disclosing that they’re HIV positive because of the stigma,” said Cano.

While they represented 20 percent of new HIV infections in the United States for 2009, nearly three times as high as whites, Latinos are more likely to be tested late than other ethnic groups. An estimated 36 percent of Latinos upgrade to AIDS after a year of their HIV diagnosis.

As a counselor, Cano forces himself to be strong to empower his clients, but he said when “you work with STD’s you really have to disconnect from who you are” to objectively understand the problem.

“There are some people who don’t care,” he said. “How are you going to help them and how are you going to make them listen to you?”

Lawrence Stallworth II, 20, of Cleveland, Ohio, left, who was diagnosed with HIV at age 17, speaks on a youth panel at the International AIDS Conference in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Bringing awareness to the forefront was the mark of the 19th  AIDS International Conference that kicked off Sunday with a march around the National Mall in Washington D.C.

For the first time in a generation on U.S. soil, 25,000 policy makers, researchers and advocates convene on the nation’s Capitol this week to discuss prevention, treatment and empowerment.

Latino organizations such as the National Latino AIDS Action Network in partnership with other Latino and Caribbean organizations have coordinated a series of events that coincide with the conference. It’s an effort to spark a conversation among Latino families and community leaders.

Oscar Mairena, senior associate of policy and legislative affairs of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, said many of the community clinics that deal with HIV patients are underfunded. In addition, the centers that get the most funds are usually in areas with a high-prevalence rate. There is still a lack of resources to help educate individuals in rural and suburban communities.

Latinos confront what Mairena referred to as a morally convoluted issue particularly in areas where health education lags.

“Within our community, we have a problem of making it somebody else’s problem,” Mairena told VOXXI. “We think that HIV isn’t facing our community, but what I always tell them is that you don’t have to be infected to be affected.”

Latinos, unlike other ethnic groups, confront socioeconomic obstacles such as immigration, poverty, migration patterns, lower educational attainment, language barriers and inadequate health insurance when seeking treatment or health services.

As a young gay Latino, Mairena explained that puts him in the third highest category of being infected. It’s an indiscriminate disease that affects everyone he explained. That’s why he got involved.

“Why wouldn’t I take responsibility for my health, for my community’s health knowing that I am in such high risk?” Mairena said.

Efforts are underway to help prevent HIV in communities across the country. The Center for Disease Control supports dissemination of HIV behavioral interventions for Latinos including Connect, Cuidate!, Modelo de Intervencion Psicomedica and Project AIM among others.

One such intervention model implemented by CDC includes placing Spanish-language versions of Act Against AIDS campaign messages on billboards, bus shelters and public television announcements in six cities with a high Latino population.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaks at the XIX International Aids Conference, Monday in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Guillermo Chacon, president of the New York based Latino Commission on AIDS, told VOXXI his organization will be launching a series of Spanish-language videos — called “Sharing stories creating hope” — that will air in local clinics across the country. The videos highlight the benefits of HIV treatment from personal testimonies of patients.

New York is the epicenter of the U.S. epidemic with 33 percent of Latinos being diagnosed, Chacon siad. In that regard, their strategy focuses on relating to a diverse crowd of individuals and targeting messages that speak in the same dialect as their countries of origin.

That includes disseminating information in churches.

“I always remind people that the way to end stigma is with each of us,” Chacon told VOXXI. “The way to end with the phobias is for us to take the time to learn. Unfortunately, when you look at health promotion marketing, it’s very limited.”

And there’s still a sense of apathy that trickles down from the government to local clinics.

In Dallas, Cano confronts a rising rate of AIDS among the undocumented community. He doesn’t see ads there.

“The government needs to be more out there with HIV,” said Cano.

Due to fear of disclosure, undocumented immigrants may be less likely to access HIV prevention services, get an HIV test, or receive adequate treatment and care.

The cases Cano deals with include Latina women who are undocumented and get infected by their husbands. Latina women are more socially affected than gay men because they are rejected by their families and beaten by their husbands, Cano told VOXXI.

“When you say a Latina woman is infected with HIV they say ‘Oh what were you doing? Were you a prostitute?’” he said.

Latina women accounted for 21 percent of new infections among Latinos in 2009, their rate of HIV infection was more than four times that of white women. Many of these women were most infected because they were unaware of their male partner’s high risk behaviors.

Cano believes the only way to effectively combat the epidemic is to change attitudes and misconceptions among the younger generation.

“New generations, they need to know that HIV is still around if we’re going to have some kind of gain with this fight,” he said. “It’s not going away.”

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