Shortly after county health officials came across a disease called AIDS five years ago, Eunice Diaz found herself at the forefront of an effort to educate the Latino community about the fatal affliction.
At the time, she worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which was investigating deaths striking a large number of mainly white gay men as well as a small number of Latinos.
Health department officials were concerned that information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome was not reaching the Latino community. Few of the department's materials were in Spanish, and most of the risk-group it wanted to reach get the bulk of its news from Spanish-language media. So the department asked Diaz, who worked as a program analyst, to assist health educators in developing activities and information geared to Latinos.
Diaz has since become the director of health promotion and community affairs for White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, but she continues to quietly crusade for more AIDS education to Latinos.
The Cerritos resident has given presentations on AIDS to church groups and other organizations and on Spanish radio and television programs.
Most recently, she volunteered to be an adviser to the Santa Fe Springs-based Rio Hondo Community Action Network, one of five organizations in Los Angeles County that received a $15,000 grant this year to distribute AIDS information to Latinos. The grants were administered by the county Department of Health Services for the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Efforts to reach Latinos has escalated recently because of an increase in the number of AIDS cases in the Latino community. Two years ago, Latinos made up 7% of those with AIDS in the county but now they make up 13%. As of April, there were 1,749 reported cases of AIDS in Los Angeles County; of that number, 71% are Anglo and 14% are black.
The sharp increase has underscored the need for further AIDS education among Latinos. But health educators have found that information on AIDS not only has to be translated in Spanish but adapted culturally as well.
For that reason, Diaz and several other advisers from the Southeast Los Angeles County area reviewed materials and pamphlets for Rio Hondo CAN to make certain they were appropriate. In one rejected pamphlet that was widely circulated among the Anglo population, characters from Hollywood horror movie classics illustrate a text about AIDS in the workplace. But those characters are not familiar in the Latino community, and so lose their impact, health educators said.
With its grant, Rio Hondo CAN is holding three educational conferences on AIDS for Latino community leaders, who will take what they learn back to their constituencies. The conferences, which began last Friday and will continue tomorrow and June 27 at the Santa Fe Springs Town Center Hall, feature workshops with experts on different aspects of AIDS, said John Brown, director of Rio Hondo CAN.
To increase the visibility of the fight against AIDS in the Latino community, Rio Hondo CAN held a poster contest, choosing as the winner the design of art student Katherine E. Tom. The poster will be used to motivate people to learn more about AIDS but needs approval of county officials before it can be distributed countywide, said Mario Sewell, administrator of the county AIDS program office.
"It's great seeing people who actually hear the information firsthand," said Brown of the first conference. It was attended by some 45 participants from various agencies such as Cerritos College and The Center/Long Beach, a local counseling center. "I'm confident they will take the information and share it with other people," Sewell said.
County health officials said very little information has trickled down to the general Latino public because the language barrier has prevented primarily English-language organizations with limited resources from reaching Latinos.
Diaz, who is a member of the Los Angeles City and County AIDS Task Force, hopes the conferences will be the first of many steps to change that.
"For a long time, very few people were" alerting Latinos that people run a risk of contracting the disease from certain behaviors, she said. Since she and her husband--Dr. Julio Diaz, a pathologist in private practice in East Los Angeles--had an interest in health issues, they decided to learn more about the disease and carry a warning to the Spanish-speaking public.
Diaz will frequently do presentations with her husband, and she said they try to present the message in a clear and simple way.
For example, instead of telling people they run a chance of getting AIDS if they are gay or bisexual, drug addicts, or promiscuous, she will warn them with the specifics--that the "chance of being exposed to AIDS is greater" for people who have sex with more than one partner, share intravenous needles or practice anal sex.
"We highlight behaviors. That is language anyone can understand," said Diaz, a Cerritos resident.
She is a board member and co-chair of the Minority AIDS Task Force for AIDS Project Los Angeles, a member of the Los Angeles County AIDS Consortium and this week she was in Washington as one of 30 consultants nationwide to the National Institute of Mental Health on AIDS-related issues among Latinos.
Diaz hopes these efforts will "continue to alert the public. My goal is to see less cases of AIDS in the Hispanic community . . .
That's where my heart is. Many give the message in English but few can give it in Spanish," she said.