SPECIAL REPORT: HIV in the Rio Grande Valley
WESLACO – The federal government is proposing a plan to end HIV transmission in the United States by 2030. New data from the Centers for Disease Control is raising concerns about the widening, yet, largely unrecognized HIV infection rates among Hispanic and Latino populations.
The CDC estimates overall HIV rates in the U.S. have actually gone down by 6%, but in the Latino population, they’re up by 14% or more. These numbers are alarming medical professionals in communities, such as the Rio Grande Valley, where the majority of residents are of Latino descent.
Data from the CDC reveals four states and a U.S. territory – California, Texas, Florida, New York and Puerto Rico – accounted for two thirds of new HIV diagnoses among Latinos.
“What these rates mean for the state of Texas is that the entire state, males, females, children yet to born are at risk for HIV,” said Oscar Lopez, CEO and public health advocate with Poderosos.
The CDC says the need to expand HIV prevention and treatment in the Latino community is urgent.
“Latinos are the only group in the United States that actually saw an increase in HIV cases,” Lopez explained.
Lopez is one of a handful of Latino leaders regularly meeting with the CDC advocating for more Latino health care resources in the Valley and nationwide.
“Regions like San Antonio, Dallas and Houston have always had higher rates, but right behind those four giant cities is the Rio Grande Valley,” said Lopez.
“A lot of people think it just falls under gay people. But it’s not only gay people, it’s also straight people,” Leo Benevides, an HIV patient.
HIV transmission is tied to “high-risk behaviors” that aren’t exclusive to any one sexual orientation. Anyone who injects drugs or has sex is susceptible to the virus. Benevides found out he had HIV when he was 17 years old.
“I know the pain that falls behind getting diagnosed and the questions after questions and you don’t know who to ask or you don’t know how to ask,” explained Benevides.
At the time, he knew nothing about the virus. Luckily, his pediatrician caught it.
Today, because Benevides takes his daily medication, the virus is undetectable in his body. Meaning, his HIV viral load is so low, there’s effectively no risk of passing it to someone else.
The CDC says more than 50% of all Latinos in the U.S. have never been tested for HIV; 50% of Latinos report never having been offered a test. As a result, Latinos who have HIV most likely need to get tested, so they’re aware.
If not, they run the risks of infecting others and shortening their own lives.
“It wasn’t until I started coming in for regular checkups that it finally sunk in,” said one HIV patient.
For those who do become HIV positive, they told CHANNEL 5 NEWS it’s not navigating the virus that’s difficult.
“It’s the baggage ‘cause I mean, I never felt any different health wise, anything. Like it was just something that was on paper with me, that I had this,” said the patient.
We’re hiding the identity of this patient, because their family doesn’t know they’re HIV positive.
“Why should I lose my family over a dumb mistake?” the patient asked. “If I’d known more about, I probably would have made better choices. Asked more questions from the person before we slept together.”
The CDC identified HIV stigma as such a roadblock to lifesaving care, they rolled out a campaign to fight it called, “Stop HIV Stigma”.
But in South Texas, health experts are identifying another factor contributing to the spread.
“Almost every single person who comes in to get tested has met their partner through a dating app,” stated Lopez. “No one meets people out in the real world anymore.”
That’s thanks to dating mobile apps, where you can narrow the pool to fit your range, location and sexual preference.
“I mean, it’s literally at your fingertips. It gives you GPS on how close they are, how far they are,” explained the patient.
“Some people are very, like, straight to the point, straight to sex,” said Benevides.
“Sex on-demand. You can sit there and flip through it without ever leaving your couch,” the patient said.
Not everyone you meet online is honest. The patient stated, “I know people that claim to be on-prep who are not.”
“Are you going to be talking about HIV? Are you going to be talking about any other STD’s? Yes, you might ask someone ‘are you clean?’ And of course, they’re going to tell you ‘yes,’ Of course they’re going to tell you what you want to hear,” said Benevides.
“You forget that people lie, or you see that, so you think ‘I don’t need to ask questions’ because there it is. Typed out. They clicked a button, so that must mean it’s true,” said the patient.
App users putting on a front they’re protecting themselves from contracting the virus and spreading it when that’s not reality.
“Before I was diagnosed. On Grindr and all that. It was never something that I ever saw posted. It was never something that I asked about and now I do,” said the patient.
“The vast majority of people coming back positive right now are young. They’re either between the ages of 17 and 22 or 23 and 28,” said Lopez.
There are about 38,000 new HIV cases each year. Analysis from the CDC shows a high percentage of them were transmitted by people who didn’t know they had HIV. Underscoring the impact of undiagnosed cases and the critical need for more HIV testing have a handful places offering free testing.
However, Lopez says not everyone feels comfortable asking for them, because of the stigma – the prejudice and homophobia.
Under the Trump Administration, the government proposed a nearly $300 million “ending the HIV epidemic” plan with a goal to end HIV transmission in the United States by 2030. The key for the initiative to be successful everywhere though starts closer to home.
“Because sex education went out the window. Because parents are still not having this conversation with their children. Because the stigma of this disease is still so strong in the Valley. Because culture and homophobia that people living with the disease won’t tell others they have it. All of that has to change for us to get control of this disease and to make sure the next generation doesn’t get exposed to it,” explained Lopez.
Conversations will hopefully bring us close to breaking that stigma that even the most comfortable patients struggle with.
Lopez recommends everyone between the ages of 13 and 64, who have ever been sexually active or shared needles, should get tested at least once. For some, he says every six months can be even more effective.
The CDC’s national health information hotline provides answers to questions regarding HIV, how to protect yourself and where to get an HIV test. Call Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 1-800-232-4636; 1-88-232-6348 TTY; or visit the CDC website for more information.