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Latinos represent nearly a third of new HIV diagnoses in the US, CDC data shows

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CDC data shows Latinos represent nearly a third of new HIV diagnoses in the US, and seen here a Latino man has his blood drawn for HIV testing at Pineapple Healthcare in Orlando, Florida, on May 28. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — When Felix Hernandez learned that he had HIV, he had no one to lean on. In the years since his diagnosis, he found a way to support other people who may be feeling alone by helping administer HIV tests at a Tennessee clinic.

“In my case I didn’t have anyone that I could count on besides from the medical staff,” Hernandez, a 31-year-old HVAC technician, told CNN. “Sometimes you want somebody that can relate with you and unfortunately, even though the medical staff can be a great support system, sometimes they’re not positive so they don’t understand what you’re going through.”

While working at the clinic for the past two years, Hernandez says he has noticed that HIV infections among Latinos are becoming more common.

Latinos or Hispanic people represent less than 20% of the United States population but they made up nearly a third of new HIV diagnoses in 2022, according to the latest figures released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When compared to all racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic people have the second highest rate of new HIV diagnoses – there were about 19 new diagnoses for every 100,000 people, which is nearly double the national rate– and new diagnoses are rising quickly.

Across the US, new HIV diagnoses overall held relatively steady between 2018 and 2022 but they increased 19% among Latinos or Hispanic people.

In contrast, Black people had the highest share of HIV diagnoses in 2022 but new cases have fallen in recent years, down nearly 6% since 2018, the data shows.

Daniel Castellanos, vice president of research and innovation for the nonprofit Latino Commission on AIDS, said the estimates are a confirmation of a pattern that Latino advocates and health policy experts have been concerned about for years.

A trend that he says has been fueled by the high number of uninsured people, socio-economic instability, and the need for more mental health and substance abuse services.

The uninsured rate among Hispanic or Latino people was nearly 18% in 2021, making it among the highest in the nation when compared to other racial and ethnic groups, according to a survey by the US Census Bureau. Overall, an estimated 8.6% of the US population was uninsured in 2021.

“For instance, homelessness or housing stability is a major issue, or adhering to your treatment if you don’t have a place to stay, or (if) you are staying with family members and constantly thinking about what people are going to say if they see you taking that medication,” Castellanos said.

When Hernandez tested positive in 2019, the stigma and misinformation surrounding HIV that often festers in Latino communities played a large role on how he first handled his diagnosis.

“The emotions were just like ‘nobody’s gonna love me. I’m not gonna have children, I’m HIV positive.’ It was more of guilt and disgust at the same time, but it was stuff that I had to overcome,” Hernandez said.

“I didn’t know how to go about it but just to keep quiet, (go) on with my daily life and just hide it,” he added, saying that it took him several years to tell his parents, partly because of how they previously reacted when he shared with them that he was gay.

Latino advocates and health policy experts said young gay Latino men, transgender women and newly settled immigrants are among the most adversely impacted by HIV.

In 2022, Latino men who have sex with men accounted for more new HIV diagnoses than any other race or ethnicity, according to the CDC data.

Edgar Longoria, executive director of Entre Hermanos, a Seattle nonprofit serving the Latino LGBTQ community, said that not feeling comfortable sharing information with relatives or others is one of the main barriers faced by those at risk of getting HIV and those living with HIV.

“In Latin America there’s a Catholic influence, so it’s taboo to speak about sex at home if you are heterosexual, and it’s even less common to talk about sex if we are talking about gay sex,” Longoria said.

In the case of LGBTQ Latinos, they strongly prefer anonymous HIV services and often check to see if anyone will see them entering an LGBTQ resources office or clinic out of fear, he added.

Parallel to the growth of the Latino population in the Seattle area, Entre Hermanos says there has been an uptick of HIV cases in recent years. A decade ago, the nonprofit’s medical case managers supported an average of 10 individuals. That number has grown to nearly 200 clients, said Martha Zuñiga, deputy director for Entre Hermanos.

For Zuñiga, who began advocating for HIV education and access to care after losing seven of her close friends during the 1980’s AIDS crisis, the statistics in Seattle and across the country are alarming.

“It’s so sad for me that this is a never-ending story. Even though there’s a lot of resources in the world, they are not in the right places, not in the hands of the right people, or on the way that it can better serve these communities,” Zuñiga said.

Entre Hermanos provides several services, including testing, HIV medical case management, support groups, and gaining access to pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP – a medication that decreases a person’s risk of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use by about 99% when used as prescribed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Zuñiga says more institutions and the community at large are needed to increase awareness of HIV and PrEP.

“There’s young people who still think that HIV is a death sentence and people who grew up during the HIV epidemic that never got the correct information about what HIV is and how to protect themselves,” Zuñiga said. “It looks like they are not getting any kind of sexual education at home and the same thing is happening at schools.”

In a 2021 report, the CDC said awareness of PrEP and referrals to PrEP providers among Latinos who were tested for HIV at CDC-funded sites in 2019 was low compared to their White counterparts.

Last month during a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, co-chair Vincent Guilamo-Ramos discussed the rising HIV rates among Latinos saying the country
“cannot end the HIV epidemic” without an increased focus on the Latino community.

Guilamo-Ramos presented nine actions to “turn the tide,” including the equitable distribution of resources to the Latino community, eliminating barriers to care and building what he called a “Latino HIV workforce.”

“I think most of the time, I would argue that when you do hear about Latinos, it historically has been about the border and migration. We have many other needs and issues, we need to start to make that much more visible,” Guilamo-Ramos said during the meeting.

Longoria said he encourages medical providers to routinely offer HIV and STD testing, and consider offering it along with common tests such as blood sugar and cholesterol.

“They need to offer it, because if they don’t offer it, our community won’t ask for it,” Longoria said.

For now, Hernandez says he is taking any opportunity to help increase awareness of HIV in the Latino community.

“There’s a huge community out there aside from the LGBTQ community that’s here as a support system. There’s so many agencies out there and you know, it’s, it’s like a whole new family so you’re not alone. We are in this together and we’re here together until we eradicate HIV,” Hernandez said.

CNN’s Deidre McPhillips contributed to this story.

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