AIDS is a life-changing diagnosis that can have wide-ranging impacts, particularly within the Latinx community.
In a similar fashion to the COVID-19 pandemic, AIDS—also known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome—took the world by storm exactly forty years ago. Since then, there has been a lot of scientific research and progress made to improve the lives of people who are diagnosed with AIDS, and its precursor illness, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). However, the AIDS epidemic is still prominent within the United States, and it affects some communities more than others.
To draw attention to the issue of AIDS within the Latinx community, health organizations recognize National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD) each year. This year, NLAAD will be recognized on October 15, 2021.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are dedicated to improving the health of all our patients, particularly those in communities that are underserved and negatively impacted by the AIDS epidemic. In honor of National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day, here is everything you need to know about HIV/AIDS, and how it impacts the Latinx community.
Recognizing the History of HIV/AIDS
The first cases of AIDS were reported in the US in the summer of 1981. Young, otherwise healthy men, were becoming ill with diseases that were very rare and usually only affected people with weak immune systems. Other people with problems linked to severely weakened immune systems were quickly identified. However, it took two years for scientists to identify the virus that causes AIDS.
The Current State of HIV/AIDS in the United States
Since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, 700,000 people in the U.S. have died of AIDS. Although there are many effective prevention methods and treatments available now, new people are still getting infected with HIV every day, with 50,000 new cases each year. The most recent calculations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 1.2 million people are probably living in the US with HIV, but 13 percent may be unaware that they are infected, and fewer than half have the virus under control.
The Prevalence of AIDS within the Latinx Community
In the United States, people within the Latinx community are more likely to be impacted by AIDS than those who are a part of other communities. This is one of the reasons why recognizing NLAAD is so important.
Here is a snapshot of the prevalence of AIDS within the Latinx community, from the CDC):
- In 2018, 27 percent of all new HIV diagnoses were given to people within the Latinx community
- The most commonly affected people within the Latinx community were gay and bisexual men, with 7,653 new diagnoses in this group
- Among women in the Latinx community, the most commonly affected group was heterosexual women, with 1,109 new diagnoses in this group
- An estimated 274,1000 Latinx people living in the US have an HIV diagnosis
Unfortunately, of the Latinx people who have HIV, 1 in 6 is entirely unaware that they have the virus.
Why AIDS is More Prevalent in the Latinx Community
No one knows for certain why AIDS is more likely to affect people within the Latinx community. However, experts think that it might be related to a few of the following reasons:
- Because 1 in 6 Latinx people in the US who are living HIV are unaware that they have the virus, they can spread it to others without knowing that they are doing so.
- There may be certain social problems, like racism, discrimination, homophobia, and stigmas around HIV/AIDS, that prevent Latinx people from taking steps to prevent HIV, to find out if they have HIV, or to seek care when they know they have HIV.
- There are some people within the Latinx community that are more likely to have other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which makes them more vulnerable to also getting HIV.
- There are barriers to accessing healthcare within the Latinx community, such as poverty, language barriers, mistrust, and lower educational levels, which may make it less likely that a person with HIV will get tested for the virus, or pursue treatment once they get a diagnosis.
Even though these challenges exist, there are still many efforts underway to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic and specifically support people within the Latinx community.
Risk factors for HIV/AIDS
Although there is not a cure for HIV/AIDS, there are many effective treatments available, and many people can live their whole lives with the virus well-controlled. However, it is still better to avoid getting the virus in the first place.
Here are the most common risk factors for HIV/AIDS:
- Unprotected anal or vaginal sex
- Other STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis
- Sharing used needles with another person when injecting drugs
- Unsafe or unsterile medical procedures
- Accidental needlestick injuries (common in healthcare workers)
One of the most important things you can do to prevent an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is to wear a condom, or other physical barriers, during every sexual encounter.
One of the reasons why many people with HIV/AIDS are unaware that they have the virus, particularly within the Latinx community, is because it often has mild and vague symptoms. If a person does have symptoms of an HIV infection, they may include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- Appetite loss
Often, a person may think these symptoms are because of another virus, and they will not pay too much attention to their illness. When these initial symptoms go away, the virus can go into hiding in the body. It may continue making more copies of itself, but it may not be detected until years later when there is so much virus present that it causes a person to get sick with an uncommon illness.
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, the best thing that you can do is get a test. At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our providers in all settings can offer an HIV test, and you can also use the government’s HIV Services Locator tool for more information.
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 gets tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime. However, if you are at higher risk of HIV, the CDC recommends that you get tested once a year. Those at higher risk include men who have sex with other men, without using protection every time.
An HIV test is a simple blood test. If you have a positive blood test, you will have more follow-up testing done. It can take a few months for a blood test to be positive after an HIV exposure, so if you are concerned that you had a specific exposure, you will likely be retested after a couple of months.
Wearing a condom during every sexual interaction can go a long way in protecting you from HIV. However, other tools can help reduce your chance of getting HIV even further.
These prevention tools include:
- Needle exchange services
- Properly cleaning needles if you self-inject
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medicines that you can take before an event that could expose you to HIV
- Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medicines that you can take after an event that may have exposed you to HIV
- If you are having sex with an HIV-positive person, making sure that they are active on their HIV medications
If a pregnant mother has HIV/AIDS, it is also now entirely possible for her to prevent transmitting the virus to her baby, which is even more reason to get tested for HIV.
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDs, there are many treatment options available to them to make sure that they never suffer from the late-stage effects of the virus and to lower their chance of passing it on to anyone else. Medications known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) can lower the amount of HIV in the blood (the “viral load’) so dramatically that it becomes undetected. With an undetectable viral load, a person with HIV can continue to live a normal, healthy life.
There are many ART HIV medicine choices available. Regardless of which medications a person with HIV/AIDS is prescribed, it is very important to take them consistently, on a regular schedule, to make sure that the amount of HIV in their blood remains low.
It is also important to take every step to stay safe and prevent other infections, particularly during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are currently offering COVID-19 boosters to immunosuppressed people, including those with HIV/AIDS.
How to Learn More About HIV/AIDS
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we treat every patient as if they were a family member, and we are devoted to improving the health of patients of all backgrounds in our community. We excel at treating patients with chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, and we are proud supporters of National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day.
If you or a loved one are concerned about a potential HIV exposure, or if you would like to get evaluated, contact us today to learn more.