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INTRO: This weekend is the annual AIDS Walk in Las Vegas. The epidemic is a serious problem for the traditionally conservative Latino culture evident in the statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Latinos account for more than 20 percent of the nation's cases of HIV and AIDS. In LA Latinos make up 33 percent of the infected population and HIV is the leading disease causing death for Latino males age 24-44. A new study shows new cases among Latinos are increasing at an alarming rate. Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: While new cases of AIDS declined among whites from 2002 to 2003 in LA, the study reported there are now more than 14-thousand Latinos with AIDS in LA. Up 43 percent in just one year.
LOPEZ: The trend is clear, we have seen flat funding in terms of HIV dollars but the numbers of infections continue to increase.
PLASKON: Luis Lopez is Director of policy for the 65-million dollar Health Services Corporation, part of a coalition that conducted the study. Among Latinos, HIV is seen as a disease that only attacks the morally corrupt, the religious culture frowns on the use of condoms and gay men stay closeted because of fear they will be shunned. Lopez says the solution is to educate Latinos.
LOPEZ: Addressing homophobia and stigma as it relates to gay and bisexual men in Latino communities.
PLASKON: Its even more complicated considering that many homosexual Latinos are married says Bi-national AIDS program organizer Robin Slade.
SLADE: And so it makes it very difficult for them to come out because most of them don't consider themselves to be gay, even though they have sex with men.
PLASKON: Since they don't accept that they are gay, it makes education much more difficult and the spread of the disease much more likely. Slade tried to solve the problem by targeting Latino men on both sides of the border. He left out the touchy subject of homosexuality in safe sex education. In 1999 he collaborated with the University of California to study cross border HIV infection rates, but lost state funding, putting his bi-national AIDS Advocacy project in bankruptcy. Slade blames a domino effect of Bush administration funding shifts that focus more on abstinence.
GUERRERO: That is very problematic.
PLASKON: Mario Guerrero is the Public Policy Analyst for Bienestar, providing STD health services in Los Angeles. He says competition for federal funds is already tight without abstinence requirements. HIV infected people are living longer because of treatment advances. In addition flat state and federal funding has him looking elsewhere.
GUERRERO: Its making non-profit organizations really look at their funding sources to diversify more.
PLASKON: For the first time Bienestar has had to hire a development director to find money. Latino AIDS and HIV services in LA have also formed a coalition to try to do what federal funding isn't, provide the education about homosexuality that Latinos need. If nothing is done, the coalition's report says infection rates among Latinos in LA will increase 31 percent over the next 10 years.
CIOCCA: We face some of the same statistics.
PLASKON: Caroline Ciocca is the executive director of Las Vegas's Aid for AIDS of Nevada. Currently, in Las Vegas, reported rates of HIV are lower than the national average. Latinos account for 14 to 15 percent of all reported HIV and AIDS cases. Recent federal funding cuts are making it even more challenging to serve the community here too Ciocco says.
CIOCCA: It has actually, we went from 4 pier coordinators to 3 and 3 is the limit I can't go any lower than 3 care coordinators, otherwise I would not be able to service the 15-hundred clients we have in our database.
PLASKON: Like the LA service organizations the recent shift in federal funding restrictions have Ciocca looking for other income. Since coming on board a year and a half ago she has been trying to reduce its reliance on federal funding from 70 percent to 50 percent.
CIOCCA: I just don't think that anybody should be that reliant on federal dollars. It is an unstable source at any given time it could be re-allocated, it could be cut, we just need to rely more on the community.
Relying on the community means she is looking for funding assistance from businesses and events like this weekends AIDS walk.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR.