When Iris, 50, found out she had HIV, she started preparing for her death.
Alongside the diagnosis, she found out her husband cheated on her – he tested positive too, without telling her. Their 8-year-old daughter later tested positive as well.
“I screamed and I started crying,” she remembered. “I thought I was going to die.”
Now, fewer have the same fears – her friends do not worry about the disease, sure they could control it.
“They got comfortable because of the medicine,” Iris said.
But that kind of complacency threatens the success in fighting HIV/AIDS, experts say – and in fact, people like Iris in the Latino and immigrant communities face the highest rate of new diagnoses.
Immigrants, some undocumented who fear both officials and lack of health care, are experiencing higher rates of HIV infection in NYC.
The percentage of New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV who are foreign born jumped from 27 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2010, according to the Health Department, which called it a “public health failure” in a report. In 2001, that percentage was 17 percent.
“Folks are lulled into a sense of complacency,” said Joey Pressley, a staffer for Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who hosted a forum Jan. 17 about HIV prevention in her East Harlem community.
That complacency is dangerous, experts say.
“The No. 1 way that we can ensure that we won’t be able to end HIV/AIDS is by not paying attention to the next generation,” said Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, professor and co-director of the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at New York University.
Ingrid Floyd, director at Iris House, which helps people with HIV/AIDS, said about 40 percent of their clients are Latinos, and half of those are immigrants, many from the Dominican Republic and Central America, where confronting a positive status is much harder.
“There is still such a huge stigma around HIV,” she said.
Even now, Iris struggles with the thought of sharing her status with people at the church she regularly attends.
“I haven’t been able to tell them,” she said. “I’m afraid of rejection.”
But that graveyard plot she set aside?
“It’s still there, empty,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it this far.”
Guilamo-Ramos said at an NYU panel last week that Latinos are at particular risk for not getting care for HIV and AIDS, because many test late and then do not stay in health care. Also, they may never arrive at a clinic in the first place. “They’re so afraid of being discovered by immigration that they hesitate to engage,” said Felix Lopez, legal director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Nationally, Latinos struggle with AIDS
A Jan. 23 New York University event focused on the issue of HIV/AIDS and Hispanics, bringing together public health officials and city Health Department workers to discuss. Across the country, Latinos make up 16.7 percent of the population but 20 percent of all new cases, according to event documents. They also have the highest rates of being uninsured of any racial or ethnic group.