HIV Concerns for Many Mississippi Latinos

Mississippi and other states in the south have seen a recent rise in the number of Latino immigrants. But there's concern that the lack access to healthcare makes these newcomers vulnerable to HIV. Tim Frasca, who works with the Latino Commission on AIDS Deep South, discusses why some Latino immigrants aren't getting adequate healthcare and prevention services, and what's being done to combat the problem.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're broadcasting today from WJSU in Jackson, Mississippi. I think you can tell we're having some technical problems. We're going to try to straighten them out in the course of the broadcast, but we're going to do our best. Still to come, pride and heritage, we'll talk with two proud Mississippians with very different backgrounds: A fashion designer, who showcases his southern roots in New York, and one of the giants of the civil rights movement. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we're used to thinking about Mississippi as a story told in black and white. But that is slowly changing. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the state has seen its population of foreign-born residents more than double since the year 2000, and half of those newcomers are believed to be Latino. But some activists and health professionals are concerned that the failure to realize that new communities are moving to the state can have serious health implications, mainly because so many newcomers lack access to health care. Recently, the Latino Commission on AIDS' Deep South Project traveled to several southern states, including Mississippi, to meet with local organizations to discuss strategies to address this. Joining us now from our New York bureau is program coordinator, Tim Frasca. Welcome, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr.TIM FRASCA (Program Coordinator, Deep South Project, Latino Commission on AIDS): My pleasure.

MARTIN: Tim, what's behind the timing of this outreach? Why now?

Mr. FRASCA: Well, in the seven states that we're working in there are these new populations that you just referred to: Hispanic immigrants, who have come in very large numbers in very recent times to places where infrastructure was not previously available. And so you have Latino communities that are very different from what you will find in California, Texas, or Florida, and it was deemed appropriate to see if we could partner with people locally to try to create and to stimulate that process so that these populations would be served.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the infection rate among Latinos in general and among - in Mississippi in particular, is pretty low. It's something like three percent, is that about right?

Mr. FRASCA: Well, that's not the infection rate among that population group. The number that you refer to is the proportion of Latinos among the new cases.

MARTIN: I see.

Mr. FRASCA: And given that we really don't know how many people are in these different states, especially in a place like Mississippi. Anywhere in the Gulf Coast is data that's previous to 2005 or pre-hurricane is completely out of date. Nobody really knows the denominator, so you can't come up with a rate of that sort. What you can say is that of the new cases three percent are Latinos, in the state of Mississippi. However, we've seen the trends in slightly older Latino communities, in places like Georgia and North Carolina, where that figure is now over eight percent in North Carolina. And that is thought to be already substantially higher than the proportion of Latinos in the state. So North Carolina has recognized that that's an issue. They have a Latino liaison in the HIV program, recently hired, and they're trying to move forward on that.

MARTIN: Is the concern that folks don't have the same level that - perhaps, folks in these new communities don't have the same level of awareness of the disease and how to protect themselves as people who have been here longer and presumably are better connected to social service organizations and so forth? Or are there specific behaviors that cause you concern, because maybe there are a lot of unattached people here who aren't as, perhaps - you know what I mean? Are there particular concerns?

Mr. FRASCA: Well, both of those things. I mean, one thing to keep in mind is that nobody really knows because there's a lot of research that has not been done to give us that information. We know that this population, in general terms, is a less educated group. They're coming from more rural areas in Central America and Mexico. So that's certainly an issue. Although, we also know that awareness of risk doesn't necessarily lead to protective behavior.

The other thing that you allude to is that this is a population with large vulnerabilities. And we've learned enough about HIV over the last two decades and some to know that that is problematic. If you look at a population and say, OK, here are people who have a high proportion of unaccompanied men, very high stress levels because of the immigration experience, some - there's some evidence of untreated STDs being fairly high. The whole issue of being a recent arrival, that disconnect from any kind of health care. Because you're talking about a population where sometimes people get injured on the job and don't know where to go.

MARTIN: Finally, Tim, we only have a minute left.

Mr. FRASCA: Sure.

MARTIN: Are you at all concerned that bringing attention to the vulnerability of these newcomers, that that might exacerbate some anti-immigrant sentiments that some people already have?

Mr. FRASCA: Well, that's a concern, certainly. But I think that we have to look at the history of HIV. I mean, we have long - we've been through this before. When HIV, AIDS came onto the scene there was a lot of stigma and discrimination because, oh, well, it's homosexuals, drug users. And those people should just stop doing what they do and then we won't have a problem. So it's easy to say, well, this is - the problem is, those people, as opposed to having a public-health strategy that starts from their subjective reality and recognizes that if we want to have a competent prevention that will affect all of us, since we're all living here together, then we have to get beyond that. Drawing attention to the problem is - I think that it's inevitable, so...

MARTIN: Just deal with it.

Mr. FRASCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. Tim Frasca is the program coordinator for the Latino Commission on AIDS' Deep South project. He was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. FRASCA: You're most welcome.

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