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Surgeon General Exhorts Latinos to Talk About AIDS : Health: In address at L.A. conference, Puerto Rican-born doctor says the community must overcome reluctance to educate children about the disease.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nation’s first Latino surgeon general came to Los Angeles on Friday and challenged members of her own ethnic community to throw off “cultural contradictions” and educate their children about AIDS.

“AIDS is no longer a disease of women and men,” Antonia Novello declared. “AIDS is a disease of families.”

Novello made her remarks to a standing-room-only audience of 1,000 health care workers, counselors and community activists at the first nationwide conference on drug abuse and AIDS in the Latino community. The surgeon general delivered the keynote speech of the three-day conference, which ended Friday.

She encouraged Latinos to talk openly about homosexuality, unsafe sexual practices and drug abuse--even if it means casting aside some of their religious and social customs. At the same time, she asked them to draw on their strong family ties as a means to educate one another, especially Latino youth.

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“I need to make sure that the family becomes the first school of health in the United States of America,” she said. “We have to talk openly about AIDS. . . . You must talk to your children.”

Her speech was emotional, delivered at a rapid-fire clip and peppered with references to her cultural heritage. “I am mindful that I am the surgeon general for all the United States,” said the Puerto Rican-born doctor. “But I am also mindful that I am the first Hispanic surgeon general. . . . I must come forward and help my people.”

Novello’s words moved some in the audience to tears. And she cried when the crowd gave her a prolonged standing ovation.

“It was fantastic,” Enrique Montoya, who directs the Colorado Latino AIDS Community Network in Denver, said of Novello’s address. “I felt positive vibes from her. They were nonpolitical, they were non-phony. They were real.

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“For once,” he said, “we have one of our own in that position, at that level, addressing our needs.”

The conference, held at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, was coordinated by three branches of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Charles Schuster, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the conference chairmen, the conference stemmed from concerns that Latinos, who make up 9% of the general population, account for 16% of the population infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

That translates into approximately 30,000 Latino AIDS cases. And, according to Novello, more than half the Latino adults who contract AIDS do so as a result of intravenous drug use. One conference participant said statistics show that two out of every five babies born with AIDS are Latino.

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With the Latino population growing at a rapid rate, conference leaders said the government must begin to concentrate its efforts on that community.

The conference was attended by 1,200 people from across the country. Among them was Carmen Paris, who directs AIDS educational programs in Philadelphia that are geared specifically to Latino women and prison inmates.

Paris complained that the message about AIDS prevention has not reached the Latino community. She lamented that by the time she and her staff try to educate their female clients, the women have already contracted the virus.

“There’s no awareness,” she said. “When you talk to these women about sex and all the risks, they say, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

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Montoya, the Denver AIDS counselor, said educating the Latino community is particularly difficult because of religious taboos about homosexuality and premarital sex, and cultural stereotypes about passive women and macho men have made education difficult.

He said some Latinos tend to deny that their community could be touched by the problem. “I call it the ‘exempt status attitude,’ ” he said.


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