Originally created 06/26/02

Health campaigns target Hispanics



ATLANTA - Georgia's Hispanic population has seen remarkable growth in recent years, and health workers throughout the state are working to prevent a corresponding increase in HIV infections.

Nationally, Hispanics are disproportionally affected by the virus that causes AIDS - they account for 13 percent of the national population and 19 percent of new HIV cases, federal researchers report.

In Georgia, the number of Hispanics tripled between 1990 and 2000, swelling from 108,922 to 435,227.

But little is known about how HIV is affecting the state's fastest-growing demographic group.

Georgia cannot track HIV cases because the state allows anonymous testing, meaning there is no way to tell how many times a person has tested positive.

"It calls for an urgent response," said Guillermo Chacon, spokesman for the Latino Commission on AIDS, which is based in New York. "We have to encourage people to get tested."

Health districts across the state are using billboards, traveling speakers and television ads, hoping to persuade Hispanics to get tested.

In north Georgia's Whitfield County, where Hispanics make up more than 22 percent of the population, public health workers have blanketed the community's media with a bilingual campaign urging abstinence.

"We've gotten very positive feedback," said Elena Jas, an HIV and AIDS health educator for the state's northern health district. "I've had several calls asking for information on how to prevent HIV and other health-related issues."

Farther south, in Athens, health workers are approaching Hispanics with the message that all people should be tested for HIV, regardless of where they live.

"The biggest reason to get tested, whether you are in a rural or metro area, or anywhere across the country, is so you can take control of your life," said Ed Hohlbein, the director of the AIDS Coalition of Northeast Georgia. "That includes Hispanics."

The Athens-based social service organization is searching for a Spanish-speaking liaison to the area's burgeoning Hispanic community.

"We need someone who can actually talk with folks," Mr. Hohlbein said.

AIDS educators will have to know how to communicate with Hispanics and will need to understand the cultural differences among the national groups that make up the Hispanic population.

"We cannot just send someone in with a Spanish dictionary and try to establish a connection with some agricultural workers," Mr. Chacon said. "Hispanics are not just one single culture or segment of the population."

Hispanics of Cuban and Mexican descent are most likely to contract HIV through sexual intercourse, while Puerto Ricans more commonly acquire the disease through intravenous drug use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Veronica Hartwell, the director of Georgia's HIV prevention services, said the state will continue to develop programs for all demographic groups, including the different Hispanic groups, blacks, gays and heterosexuals.

"There is no single point where you can say we've reached everyone we need to reach," she said. "This is an ongoing process."

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.