HOUSTON – A Houston organization is working hard to remove the stigma surrounding HIV in the Hispanic and Latino communities. It’s a stigma that’s preventing people from knowing their health status and attributes to the further spread of the virus.
“I had a Valentine’s Day date, and a couple of weeks later I got a call [that he] just had to tell me something, and he couldn’t say what it was.” That call forever changed Steven Vargas’ life. The 53-year-old has been living with HIV for nearly half his life.
“I was a young, gay kid in Montrose,” he said. “And so, you tried everything you can to not get HIV. Being selective with your partners, using condoms, and everything. But, every once in a while, something would slip by. That was one of those nights it slipped by.”
Vargas said he was already familiar with HIV in the 1990s. Both his mother and stepfather had been living with the virus.
He said because of the strong stigma around HIV in the Hispanic and Latino communities, his partner still struggled to tell Vargas he was positive.
“People are dealing with more than just the taboo of talking about something like HIV,” Vargas said. “What can lead to HIV whether it’s sex with somebody of the same sex or sharing needles, that’s another taboo aspect of it all.”
Hispanic and Latino communities are impacted by HIV at a disproportionate rate, according to HIV.gov.
In 2019, the Hispanic and Latino population made up 29% (10,494 out of 36,901) of new diagnoses in the United States, according to the same report.
The CDC states 23% of new HIV infections in 2019 were among Latino gay and bisexual men.
“In the City of Houston, Harris County there is over 30,000 people that are living with HIV,” said FLAS executive director Elia Chino.
Chino is the founder and executive director of Fundacion Latinoamericana de Accion Social, also known as FLAS. Chino said every year, FLAS diagnoses 1,000 Houstonians who don’t know they’re living with the virus.
“I started FLAS because my best friends died from AIDS, and their families, they never said anything,” Chino said.
Chino has been fighting to ensure Houston’s Spanish-speaking community has access to resources, is encouraged to engage in healthier sexual behaviors, and take advantage of prevention services.
“They are scared to get tested but also on top of that, they think that if they come for services that the government will find out, and maybe they will be reported,” Chino said.
Last November, FLAS partnered with the Center for Disease Control to launch a new initiative called Project Vive, which translates to Project Life. It focuses on diagnosing the virus, treating, preventing it, and responding so that people can live.
The first step Chino said is to have everyone know their status.
“After you know that you have the virus, you have to change your lifestyle,” she added.
Vargas is a living testament that an HIV diagnosis is life-changing but not life-ending.
“There was a time when getting an HIV diagnosis really was distressing because it really meant that it was a death sentence,” Vargas said. “These days, people can live long, healthy lives with HIV if you have access to medications and take them daily.”
The goal is to decrease the number of new HIV diagnoses nationwide to 3,000 by the year 2030, according to HIV.gov.
Chino said the CDC is providing funding for Project Vive for five years, which will help in ending the HIV epidemic.
To set up an appointment for a free HIV test or to donate to FLAS to help the non-profit with its mission, visit their website.
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