Preventing HIV infection among Latinos is a top priority, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the Latino community continues to battle for adequate resources and funding. Especially “males who have sex with males” or “MSM”—a term coined by epidemiologists in the 1990s to encompass men who engage in homosexual sex, regardless of their declared sexual orientation—and Transgender individuals.
The Latino community has been irrevocably altered by the increasing rate of HIV/AIDS infections; the CDC estimates that Latinos represent 17 percent of new infections and 18 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS.
“The Latino community is one of the populations disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS,” said Director of Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention Dr. Jonathan Mermin, in a 2009 CDC newsletter. “Because the U.S. Latino population is expected to almost triple between the years of 2000 and 2050, continually addressing HIV/AIDS prevention in this population is vital.”
The lack of funding for HIV prevention in Latino communities is not an isolated issue in California, and poses a national health risk. According to 2010-2015 allocation records, the CDC only funded one Latino-focused program which included both MSM and transgender individuals west of the Mississippi.
The impending risk is enormous considering 65 percent of U.S. Latinos reside west of the Mississippi, and according to the 2008 U.S. Census, Latino MSM represent over 78 percent of all Latinos who have HIV/AIDS nationally.
“This lack of funding is uncalled for and unethical,” says Eduardo Morales, Executive Director of Asociación Gay Unida Impactando Latinos/Latinas A Superarse, a local, Latino LGBT non-profit focused on HIV/AIDS awareness, education and prevention. “The policy and priorities are in place, the funding was available but the staff of CDC decided to neglect and deny funding to the Latino Community, which is their top priority for HIV funding.”
In September 2009, on behalf of AGUILAS, Morales sent a formal request to the CDC regarding the funding amounts awarded to grantees, with indication of how funds specifically target Latino MSM and Transgender individuals. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Office, then Speaker of the House, sent a formal request for the same information on March 30, 2010.
Seven months later, Director of CDC, Thomas R. Friedman, responded to the congresswoman in a letter which stated that 15 community building assistance providers were awarded funding, 30 percent of which specifically target Latino MSM and transgender individuals.
The organizations listed in the letter were: Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, National Association of People with AIDS, National LGBTQ Youth of Color CBA Initiative, Regents of the University of San Francisco (CAPS) and the Latino Commission on AIDS. The total funding for these five organizations was stated at $2,137,500. Copies of abstracts and work plans on how the CDC planned to fund these organizations were also submitted to Dr. Morales.
“The CDC estimates of $2,137,500 in funding doesn’t account for the financial resources to address the multiple populations being served by these organizations since they are not exclusively for Latino MSM and transgenders,” said Morales. “Hence, the amount reported is a misrepresentation of actual funding to target Latino MSM and transgenders.”
A more accurate estimate at funding targeted to the Latino MSM/transgender community can be found by determining the percentage of funds that are set-aside for this specific population. Children’s Hospital of L.A., NAPAIDS and the Youth of Color Initiative dedicate 50 percent of their efforts to Latino MSM. CAPS and LCAIDS dedicate 20 percent.
Based on award letters from the CDC, the total funding for capacity building for all grantees was $9,762,000. The total allocation of funds for Latino MSM and Transgender individuals nationally was $674,950, placing the total funding targeted to the Latino MSM/transgender community in the U.S and Puerto Rico is between seven and eight percent.
Dr. Morales insists that this very low level of funding is not reflective of the number of HIV/AIDS cases within this high-risk community. He was finally able to meet with the CDC in October 2010 and again on May 9, 2011 regarding the status of HIV funding for assistance to Latino MSM and transgender individuals, but he said they were not very receptive to his concerns.
“The meeting did not result in any resolution with CDC. They were very defensive and resorted to iterating their policies and procedures in response to problems of integrity.” Morales said. “They didn’t respond to the lack of information available regarding grantees nor the excessive time (over 13 months) it took to receive basic information. As for HIV direct service programs, there is no information to determine to what extent grantees are focusing on Latinos. Given their history of [not] providing [timely] information, it may take over a year to get basic information which should be on their website like the other federal agencies.”
The CDC refused to comment on specific issues surrounding the Latino MSM and Transgender community or how their policies and funding do or do not specifically prioritize the Latino community in preventing HIV/AIDS, saying only,
“We are committed to ensuring our prevention efforts meet the needs of a changing epidemic. As the epidemic evolves within the Latino community, so must our response to it.”
As one of four Mission area clinics working to prevent the spread of HIV in the Latino community, Mission Neighborhood Health Center has been relying on the CDC funding for years.
“We applied to be directly funded by CDC in October 2009, and our application was approved but we weren’t ranked high enough to be funded,” said Maritza Penagos, director of HIV/AIDS services for MNHC. “We have received CDC funding for the past five years through San Francisco Department of Public Health’s HIV prevention section. This has funded our HIV counseling, Testing and Linkage program, and our HIV prevention project: Hermanos de Luna y Sol. Both of these interventions are funded via CDC and are focused on Latino MSM.”
Because of the CDC’s failure to prioritize HIV research and treatment funding for the Latino community, particularly the MSM/transgender demographic, Dr. Morales believes the escalation of HIV/AIDS infections and its stranglehold on the Latino community seems inescapable.
“Unless radical change occurs in the allocation of resources immediately we can expect increases in HIV/AIDS cases among Latino MSM,” Dr. Morales said. “By 2014 we can expect Latino MSM to represent 25 percent of AIDS cases in the U.S. and 25 percent of new HIV infection rates. We cannot allow more Latinos to get infected and die of AIDS because the CDC neglected its duty and acted unethically.”