AIDS conference brings focus to minorities, youth Infection rates among young minorities spur local activist’s commitment
Posted by pozlife on September 19, 2008
|By JUAN CARLOS RODRIGUEZ
SEP. 18, 2008
More than 4000 health professionals, AIDS activists and public officials from across the country are expected to attend Fort Lauderdale this week to attend the 12th Annual United States Conference on AIDS.
Sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, the event will take a hard look at the challenges facing all communities as the epidemic moves toward its fourth decade.
This year’s theme, Looking Back, Moving Forward, will honor the achievements of the past while delving into the challenges of the future. Panelists and discussion groups will address the specific issues facing women, minority communities and “MSM,” men who have sex with men, among the groups with the highest infection rates.
While women, MSM, and people of color were identified as the groups showing the highest rates of infection, the age group that continues to be the most vulnerable to sero-converting is young gay men aged 13 to 24.
According to Ravinia Hayes-Cozier, NMAC’s Director of Government Relations and Public Policy, the need to reach gay young people of color is urgent.
“Unfortunately, when we think of HIV among young people we think it has the potential to eliminate generations if we don’t address it at the level that the crisis commands,” she said.
According to DOH figures released this year, one in eight African American men who have sex with other men in Florida is HIV positive. One in 12 is Latino. Of those figures about 45 percent of new infections occur among people aged 13 -24.
Florida’s statistics correspond with national figures from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention that show young African-American and Latino men are disproportionately affected by HIV. African-American men alone made up 55 percent of HIV infections among people aged 13-24 in 2004, the most recent year reported.
“For a lot of young people it is not a matter of will I get HIV, it’s when, “ Hayes-Cozier said. “We need to do training and education beyond the school system.”
Hayes-Cozier said the council advocates strong mentoring programs in communities where young gay people of color can learn from older gay men about taking responsibility for themselves. Within public schools, she said, more funding needs to be available for comprehensive health and sex education.
In Florida, school systems are slashing many health and HIV prevention programs due to drastic budget cuts by the state legislature. In Miami-Dade and Broward, however, HIV/AIDS education continues to be part of the curriculum, although AIDS advocates say the programs are under-funded and lacking depth—and despite the efforts by schools, community groups and other organizations to educate young people about safe sex practices and high risk behaviors, there continues to be an lack of concern.
“With in the GLBT youth there has been a sense of complacency,” said Alex Moreno, director of outreach and education at the UM’s Division of Adolescent Medicine. “The younger gay kids, they don’t connect to the bad old days when people were dying and the risk of infection is quite high.”
In the past three months, Moreno said, the UM program diagnosed eight HIV positive young people—six of these new diagnoses, he said, are minorities who were infected by having sex with men.
The rate is about four times the national rate, Moreno said.
He attributes social pressures, and inexperience combined with the fact that many young gay minorities live in the closet without much support reinforce the at-risk behaviors.
“These kids live in the culture of instant gratification, with little or no regard for consequences,” Moreno said. “In general they are risk takers, they are trying to break the hold of their parents – and if they do things in secret, the risk is even higher.”
In Miami, Quintara Lane is among a small army of people stepping up to the challenge. She knows just how important her job working with at-risk youth.
Diagnosed HIV-positive just weeks after she was born, Lane is now a thriving 21-year-old peer counselor and educator at the adolescent HIV/AIDS program at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She works with dozens of young HIV-positive people aged 14 to 24 and frequently speaks to groups of young people in public schools, juvenile detention centers and Boys and Girls Clubs throughout the region. She’s also well versed with the high-risk behaviors her young peers continue to demonstrate all around her.
Although she is soft-spoken, Lane is not shy about disclosing her status to others. She says she is proud of representing AIDS to this population—she even wears a t-shirt that says “I HAVE HIV” in bold red letters.
“To tell you the truth I really love my job,” Lane said. “The whole purpose of what I’m doing is to be able to put a face to AIDS, and for the kids to look at me and see that I look like everybody else.”
For young teens and young adults there are no public role models speaking about AIDS from a first-hand perspective. Many of the young people Lane works with were born after 1991, the year Magic Johnson went public with his status, and his past advocacy hasn’t resonated with the recent generation.
“Most of these kids think that Magic Johnson is cured,” said Yuri Velazquez, a clinical assistant who works with Lane.
Instead of superstars, the young people in Miami have Lane and a group of eight other specially trained young HIV positive counselors from the UM program. Lane is scheduled to speak at the NMAC Friday, as part of a panel about Ryan White Funding.
“I used to think the numbers were used to stigmatize minorities,” Lane said. “But we are the ones with the high rates of infection, especially the young MSM.”
Lane knows, as do public health professionals, that the people she speaks are among the most difficult groups to reach.
“This is the most concerning age group,” said Tom Liberti chief of the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS. “Young people are not getting the message. They are getting infected at an early age and then they have to deal with it for the rest of their lives.”