Why Many Hispanics Are Avoiding Testing for HIV, AIDS Testing

Article excerpt

Byline: Madhu Krishnamurthy Daily Herald Staff Writer

Miguel lives a lie every day.

He's a closeted gay Hispanic who is so afraid what his family and community might think that he refuses to get tested for AIDS despite, he says, having had sex with multiple partners.

"What about if I came out positive?" asks Miguel, a Mexican-born Elgin resident who asked that his real name not be used. "What's going to happen with my family? ...How am I going to handle that?"

Miguel's fear of rejection epitomizes the struggle many Hispanics, gay or straight, face in their communities when it comes to AIDS. Experts say cultural taboos, attitudes about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, language barriers and poor access to health care for newer immigrants discourage many Latinos from getting tested for the disease.

Statistics show the numbers of Hispanics being tested for HIV/AIDS, as well as those confirmed to be infected with the disease, are far smaller than those for blacks and whites. The gap exists, experts say, even though the Hispanic and black populations in Illinois are roughly the same size and are equally at risk of contracting the disease.

They fear the data hide a disturbing problem.

"It's very likely that the HIV and AIDS case reports that we have on record represent only a portion of the true number of (Hispanics) living with HIV and AIDS in our jurisdiction," said Curt Hicks, HIV prevention coordinator for the Cook County Health Department.

Fewer tested

Hispanics make up the second-largest minority group in Illinois at 12.3 percent of the state's overall 12.4 million population, according to 2000 census figures. Blacks are the largest minority group at 15.1 percent.

However, statewide figures show the number of blacks tested for HIV/AIDS, and those with confirmed cases, is many times greater than that of Hispanics.

In 2001, there were 1,548 confirmed HIV cases reported in Illinois. Of that total, 905 were black, 167 were Hispanic and 449 were white. Among the 1,212 confirmed AIDS cases reported, 701 were black, 163 were Hispanic and 334 were white.

Statewide, 2,392 Hispanics opted for anonymous testing in 2001, compared with 8,813 blacks and 11,192 whites, according to health department data.

AIDS is a disease that weakens the body's immune system, ultimately resulting in death; HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Unprotected sex with infected partners and intravenous drug use remain the leading risky behaviors resulting in infection.

AIDS is an equal opportunity illness that cuts across all genders, cultures, religions and socioeconomic groups.

But experts say they see cultural, language and economic barriers deterring Hispanics - more so than other groups - from getting proper testing and diagnosis.

Hicks said newer Latino immigrants who primarily speak Spanish may not have proper residency documentation, language skills, money and insurance to obtain needed health care.

"They may be fearful about accessing testing or health care for fear that they would be reported. ...That could be a psychological barrier to testing," he said. "That might make them more likely to be underreported."

In addition, while all cultures have social stigmas and taboos in varying degrees when it comes to AIDS, Hispanic health advocates say such fears are magnified among Latinos.

Many Latinos equate HIV/AIDS with being gay, and gays are stigmatized in Hispanic culture more than in some other cultures, said Marcos Bostho, HIV/AIDS program coordinator for Renz Addiction Counseling Center in Elgin.

"That's one of the biggest problems because many people who are gay are so rejected in this culture, they have to hide their true personality," said Bostho, who coordinates Dos Espirutos, a Latino gay men's support group in the suburbs. "Most of them, they even get married and lead a double life, which puts at risk a lot of women. …