It was early in his career when one of Guillermo Chacon’s best volunteers at a San Francisco community agency came forward with a confession. Wilfredo, a young Salvadoran eighteen-year-old, spilled his news with a unique mix of dread and fear: he had AIDS.
“I had never known anyone who had the disease and yet knew nothing about it,” recalls Chacon, who now serves as the president of the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA). “I made a promise to Wilfredo before he died a few months later that I would do my best to step up to the challenges of this disease and help educate others about it. And that’s why I’m here today.”
The promise that Chacon made so many years ago rings true for many of the medical practitioners, researchers, community organizers, political figures and activists who have gathered this week at the 19th International AIDS Conference being held in Washington, D.C. More than 25,000 conference attendees from around the world have gathered to promote cutting-edge research, forge meaningful community connections, and reduce the stigma around AIDS.
Although great strides in overall community health have been made since the deadly U.S. AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Hispanics accounted for 20 percent of all AIDS cases in 2010. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Latinos are nearly three times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than non-Hispanic whites. Perhaps even more sobering are the mortality statistics: Hispanic males were 2.3 times more likely to die of AIDS than their non-Hispanic White peers and Latinas were 3.4 times more likely to die from the disease.
“There’s historically been an absence of Latinos in many of these world AIDS meetings so I’m here to make sure make our presence is known as we highlight the need for distinct HIV/AIDS research approaches n the Hispanic community,” explains Dr. Britt Rios-Ellis, a professor of Health Science at California State University Long Beach and Director of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).
Dr. Rios-Ellis helped organize a research forum attended by approximately 400 medical practitioners, researchers and community organizers at a pre-conference kickoff event on Sunday. It’s just one effort that she and other members of the Latino community hope will spearhead a larger movement to end the Latino AIDS epidemic.
“Latinos are the fastest growing and youngest population in the United States – we’re the ones who need to lead the effort and work towards an AIDS-free generation,” explains Francisco Ruiz, the chair of the National Latino AIDS Action Network (NLAAN). “And now, with the first AIDS conference in the United States in 22 years, we Latinos who are here are in a great position to take the message back to our communities and mobilize towards our goal.”
NLAAN is working around the clock this week to realize that objective. One of their efforts includes hosting 20 Latino bloggers – representing communities as divergent as San Diego, Miami, Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia and New York – to live blog each day’s events in order to bring the conference experience back home. The bloggers are also charged with hosting daily town halls and moderating live chats, all in an effort to make sure Latinos at home are getting the chance to ask questions and be answered.
“More than anything, I see this event as a way to educate our communities through our record use of cell phones and social media spaces,” says Miguel Gomez, director of AIDS.gov, part of the Health and Human Services Department’s office of HIV/AIDS policy.
Gomez is charged with making sure that each day’s events are tweeted, logged, aired via podcast and repurposed through different media channels in order to push out policy information and relevant services to both Latino and general communities. His office has also created a technical support center at the conference, ensuring that attendees remain connected and hassle-free.
“We’re here to continue the education of our public health community using the tools that already exist,” explains Gomez. “With just one tweet, there’s potential to change the conversation and reverse the stigma Latinos have around sexual health, health care.”
“There are Latinos here at the conference doing a multitude of things, all in hopes to end our community from being so disproportionately affected,” says Gomez. “And it’s our hope that people at home will continue to share the message.”