ASAP medical case managers Galo Cruz and Emily Mendez

ASAP medical case managers Galo Cruz and Emily Mendez

HIV/AIDS Growth in Hispanic Communities

While HIV/AIDS continue to affect all communities, Florida’s Hispanic population faces extreme growth rates and additional barriers to care.

The Florida Department of Health reports, “The proportion of all newly reported adult HIV infection cases among Hispanics increased from 20% in 2005 to 26% in 2014. Of the newly reported adult HIV infection cases in 2014, the case rate among Hispanic men was 2.1 times higher than the rate among white men; likewise the case rate among Hispanic women was 2.4 times higher than the rate among white women.”

Ayakao Watkins, ASAP’s Closing the Gap coordinator, notes the department of health has set its priorities on reaching Hispanic and white MSM (men who have sex with men) as well as heterosexual blacks and females. “The Hispanic community is a growing community being diagnosed with HIV. At ASAP, we’re seeing a lot of Hispanics for testing. Many don’t know they can get care and the stigma is huge,” Watkins said.

Another major concern is the greater prevalence of HIV deaths among Hispanics. According to the department of health, “In 2013, HIV was the 7th leading cause of death in Florida for Hispanic men ages 25-44, and the 8th leading cause of death for Hispanic women ages 25-44.”

Galo Cruz, a Puerto Rican native and bilingual medical case manager at ASAP, says many Hispanics aren’t getting care. “As a growing minority population in the U.S., Latinos are less likely to receive medical care than whites and African Americans. Although African Americans have the highest incidence of HIV cases, Latinos have the highest percentage of individuals diagnosed with AIDS due to a lack of medical care. Latinos with AIDS tend to die faster than other cultures,” Cruz explained.

Challenges to Accessing Care

Cruz has been working with the Hispanic community for many years and dedicated his Master’s thesis to Latinos and HIV. In his work with ASAP, he has focused on helping HIV clients in the St. Petersburg area gain access to essential care and medications. He sees many challenges with the Hispanic community getting the services they need.

“I think one of the main concerns is that the majority of health information literature is in English and there’s a lack of translators. There’s also a lack of education about the disease. Many refuse to ask their doctors about it because they feel uncomfortable or may not go to a clinic because they fear everybody will know their HIV status,” Cruz said.

He adds that social issues and cultural beliefs also create barriers for Hispanics. “Many Hispanics are very religious and, in some churches, HIV is seen as a punishment from God. We need more education, starting with the churches. With females, HIV cases keep increasing because many are in heterosexual relationships with boyfriends who are using drugs. Female clients may miss their medical appointments because they’re dealing with taking care of their children.”

ThinkstockPhotos-85450170Being a strong advocate for his clients is critical in his role. “If you don’t address the social issues you won’t see the outcome of medical care. I support my clients and make sure they have the questions they need to ask their doctors. Many of our clients are comfortable with case managers and see them as family,” he said.

Talking About HIV

Working to support clients in the Clearwater area is Emily Mendez, a bilingual medical case manager at ASAP for the past year. She says HIV and homosexuality are taboo topics in the Hispanic community and society-at-large.

“I think there’s a lot of hesitation to talk about HIV. There’s also a lack of understanding about how diseases work. There are young men having sex with older men in the Hispanic community and they say they don’t talk about HIV, they just hope they don’t get it. It’s hard to convince people to use condoms even when they’re with someone with HIV. People can get re-infected with different strains and become resistant to medications,” Mendez explained.

She adds that Hispanics face other challenges, too. “If you have a new diagnosis, are undocumented and can’t speak English, it can become nearly impossible to get care.”

Providing more education in the community, especially in the churches, is a good intervention, she says. “Because of my work, I’ve become more vocal and comfortable talking with people about HIV and getting tested.”

Want to get tested or support? ASAP has locations in Clearwater, St. Pete and Tampa. Learn more at or call (727) 328-3260.

Join ASAP’s Tampa Bay AIDS Walk & Fun Run on Saturday, December 12 in St. Pete to support those in our community impacted by HIV/AIDS.