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With an Open Mind, L.A.'s Latino Community Must Prepare to Battle AIDS

<i> Sergio Munoz is the executive editor of La Opinion, Los Angeles</i>

Of the 74,809 cases of people diagnosed with AIDS in the United States, 10,979 have been Latinos; in percentages, this means that Latinos, who are 8% of the U.S. population, account for 14% of all AIDS cases.

However sad it is to acknowledge that Latinos are dying of AIDS, it’s time to confront that fact and find answers to the many questions raised by it. How do we as a community truly attempt to deal with the rising number of AIDS-related deaths? How do we treat those Latinos who have contracted the human immunodeficiency virus? How do we prevent its spread?

Answering these questions is obviously complicated; honest people can differ on the approaches and solutions. But we can all agree that we will not be successful in the battle against AIDS until we approach the issue head-on. We must be honest; there aremyths to expel and we have to be critical, even of ourselves.

Here, where self-criticism is the issue, new problems arise. There are still too many people in the Latino community who have difficulty being frank and acknowledging controversial behavior. Yet there are facts to be faced about our own population: Among our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, there are some gays andbisexuals and drug abusers. Until we admit that much, we’ll never confront the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic.

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Also among us are people committed to helping those in need; the Latino community is a diverse and multifaceted one. But there are those people who live impulsively and act before they think: the married people who are unfaithful and then come home to sleep with their spouses; the married men who have relations with other men and refuse to accept their behavior as bisexual, plus the women who sell themselves on the streets for money or drugs and then have children--exposing these innocent babies to the AIDS virus.

First, we must open our minds to all such members of our society, and then we must get the word out to all of them by speaking the truth and being as blunt as we can. AIDS kills. We have to stop it.

I was tempted to write that there was an information gap in our community--a few people know a lot about the issue but their information has not filtered down to the community at large. Then I decided that, in fact, there is individual ignorance amid a glut of information.

We know how the disease is spread, but does Juan know? We also know how the disease is contracted, but does Maria know?

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Then there is individual knowledge amid societal ignorance. Each citizen knows how deadly the disease can be, but does Los Angeles know how successful community responses can be, as the San Francisco gay community has demonstrated?

I am afraid not. Because of the alarmingly disproportionate incidence of AIDS in the Latino community, I am writing this piece, but one article means nothing unless the Latino community talks and works together fighting AIDS.

My job is to communicate with the Latino community; I have to pass along what we already know about AIDS to those who either haven’t heard--or refuse to listen.

Science has not yet provided a cure or a vaccine for AIDS. The elusive behavior of the virus has prevented development of either. Prospects for the discovery of effective therapeutic or preventive drugs are far in the future.

So the only known way to fight back against AIDS is prevention. This is certainly not the prevalent attitude among Latinos. In the first six months of 1988 the number of Latino AIDS cases grew by 35%, the fastest rate of growth among any ethnic group, including whites, in the United States.

It is true that homosexual and bisexual men form the group with the highest incidence of AIDS. What is not clearly understood is that high-risk behavior can condemn a whole generation of women and children who may contract the virus.

Sharing prejudices against homosexuals, the main target group of the illness, is no help. We cannot blame homosexuals for the disease; they did not start it. We cannot condone people who despise homosexuality; they cannot cure it. Gays are not the only high-risk group among us. We should find ways to ensure that all people with AIDS will be treated as human beings and supported emotionally. They carry a heavy burden; we all can do something to assist them.

We need a coordinated community effort, to form the agencies--medical and social service--that will help those in need.

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We are fortunate in Los Angeles; we have the most powerful collection of Latino community-based organizations in the country. The total outreach of these organizations benefits more than 2 1/2 million Latinos.

We can use the network already in place to educate or re-educate people about the disease. We have to dispel the myths. We have to eliminate discrimination against people with AIDS. We have to expand health and social services for persons infected--and for their immediate circle of relatives, friends and associates. Every employer should consider the establishment of an AIDS workplace policy. And we need to train volunteers who can respond positively to each AIDS-related situation in the community.

We all must get involved against AIDS. Together.


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