While South Florida continues to have the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the country, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Latino men have the highest rates of HIV infection among different demographic groups.
Dr. Stephen Fallon is the Executive Director of Latinos Salud, an organization he founded in 2008 to help Latino men find a safe space to get tested, find support, and educate themselves on the South-Florida HIV epidemic. He joined Sundial to talk about why Latino men are disproportionately affected by the epidemic, and what his organization is trying to do to fix it.
WLRN: At what point did state and local leaders recognize the extent of the problem down here [Florida] and started doing something about it?
FALON: Part of the problem has been that Florida as a state has been underfunded historically. The CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] funding model had been to put the funding where the epidemic had been, rather than where it was going. They switched out their credit about a half dozen years ago so we're starting to see some resources come online in Florida but we're still way under-resourced. It's like having a thousand buildings on fire and only two fire trucks.
You think about back in the 80s and 90s, when we were at the height of the HIV epidemic there was a lot of focus on a public awareness campaign to address this issue in the African-American community but not so much in the Latino community. Why?
Well, you hit it right on the head there. So much of this is just about resources. The African-American community still suffers proportionately higher rates of HIV cases but not new HIV because resources were directed to educate, test and get the word out in communities. But the Latino community was somewhat ignored and we're paying for that.
Beyond not putting enough resources, is there something unique about South Florida?
We're a community of immigrants. So things that you and I take for granted: We all had safer sex education in our high school, We watch TV shows with HIV positive characters.
Many of our residents here in South Florida came from countries where there was none of that. They also tend to be lower in health literacy. Now, health literacy isn't only based upon reading literacy but they do track alike. So there's already a language barrier as well and somebody coming from a country where maybe there was no medical support budget, they're not even used to knowing where to go look for the prevention services or treatment.
What do you find as the biggest challenge in trying to get past those cultural barriers and then to help them understand this is the issue, this is how serious it is and this is what's available to you. What do you tend to see and run into?
There is the prevention side and the treatment side. On the prevention side, people tend to fall into one of two camps either, I've been hearing about it forever. It's not my problem or I'm a gay person I'm doomed to get it. There's nothing I can do. So we try to intercede and teach people how to stay safe. On the treatment side, that's where my greatest frustration is. Medicines have improved so greatly that if a person is diagnosed today, in a timely manner after their infection and if they get on treatment stay on it they have a life expectancy of nearly half a century. Forty-five more years living with HIV for a 30-year-old diagnosed. Yet, here in South Florida, gay Latinos live an average of eight years because they're not getting into care and not staying into care. They came from a country where there was no care so they don't go looking for it, they think they'll be deported if they enter into care or they don't understand what the treatment is so they don't adhere. If they get into care, that doesn't only help them but it helps you and me because when people are treated successfully they become non-contagious. Even if a condom is forgotten one night they can't in fact if they're successfully viral suppressed is what we call it. If we control their virus.