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Latinos Confront AIDS Issue After Magic Makes Disclosure

December 05, 1991|BOB HOWARD | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

I am saying it can happen to anyone, even me . . .

--Earvin (Magic) Johnson AIDS educators in the Latino community are hoping that their message will have a greater impact now that basketball star Earvin (Magic) Johnson has disclosed that he is infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

The stunning announcement by the Los Angeles Lakers star produced a surge of interest in AIDS among Latinos, as it did among other people around the nation. Latino telephone hot lines and centers that test for the AIDS virus were deluged.

Educators expect the surge to level off, but they hope that Johnson's announcement will have long-lasting effects by increasing awareness about AIDS and dispelling the myth that it is a disease affecting only gay men.

Graciela Morales, a Los Angeles counselor at the nonprofit T.H.E. women's health clinic, said: "Magic Johnson represents all ethnic groups, not just blacks. . . . When Rock Hudson died, most Latinos would say, 'Well, he's white and he's gay.' But with Magic the reaction is, 'He's one of us, and he's straight. If it can happen to him, it can happen to us.' "

Ana Rosa Rodriguez, of the American Red Cross in Los Angeles, cautioned that AIDS educators still face immense obstacles in combatting the increasing incidence of Latino AIDS cases, including a reluctance by many Latinos to talk openly about sex.

Newly reported cases of AIDS are increasing faster among Latinos in Los Angeles County than in any other ethnic group, from 318 cases in 1987 to 556 in 1990. Latinos represent 25% of the new AIDS cases reported in the county in 1991, compared with 16% of the 1987 cases.

In all, 13,640 cases of the disease have been reported in Los Angeles County since 1981 and it has accounted for more than 9,500 deaths. In Orange County, AIDS cases now exceed 2,000 and AIDS deaths total 1,300.

David Trujillo, AIDS program administrative coordinator for Avance Human Services in East Los Angeles, said calls to the agency's AIDS hot line increased dramatically--from 25 daily to as many as 100--in the days immediately after Johnson's Nov. 7 announcement.

Most of those who called the hot line before Magic's announcement were gay or bisexual, but "probably 80% to 90%" of the callers now are heterosexual, Trujillo said.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said calls to its Spanish-language AIDS hot line jumped from a usual 100 to more than 800 during the day after Johnson's televised news conference.

Claudio Battaglia said the Cara a Cara program, based at the Hollywood Sunset Community Clinic, has been swamped with requests for free tests to detect the AIDS virus. Many more teen-agers than usual were calling for AIDS information, Battaglia said.

Rodriguez, of the American Red Cross, said she usually receives about five requests a week for AIDS educational presentations, but got 10 requests in the first two days after Johnson's announcement.

In addition to the increased awareness, a debate is under way locally over proposals to increase AIDS educational efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district's Board of Education is considering whether to accept a 12-step set of recommendations, including a proposal that condoms be made available in secondary schools.

Health officials say prevention through education is the only weapon against the disease because there is no cure. But they say education aimed at Latinos is inadequate and faces many obstacles specific to the Latino community.

"Educational efforts in general are not great, but they are worse in the Hispanic community," said Dr. Aliza Lifshitz, a member of the Los Angeles County AIDS Commission and president of the California Hispanic American Medical Assn.

Lifshitz said most of the information and education about the disease was aimed initially at the Anglo gay male community, because that is where AIDS first hit hard in the United States.

"Some of that education was wonderful," Lifshitz said, but the same messages that worked for the Anglo gay community do not work for Latinos. For example, she said, "we hear a lot about bodily fluids. A lot of Anglos don't know exactly what that means, but when you translate it into Spanish, you lose it entirely."

In addition, Lifshitz said, "when you're talking about AIDS, you're talking about sex, and sex is . . . not discussed among Hispanics."

AIDS educator Lupe Carreon said the effects of AIDS misconceptions are compounded by the attitudes of parents who "refuse to believe that their 14-year-old is out there having sex."

Such attitudes, she continued, indicate the need for much more than just basic information about AIDS. "There are many basic issues that need to be dealt with along with AIDS education: sex, sexual practices, beliefs about male and female roles, and how to talk to your children about sex," Carreon said.

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