The launching of a health outreach program could make tacrine, a promising new drug, and other innovations in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease more accessible to Latinos in Los Angeles.
"We have care givers who are suffering in silence in their homes not knowing that anybody can help them," said Laura Trejo, the program's director.
In Los Angeles County, tens of thousands of Latinos suffer from Alzheimer's, said officials who helped launch the outreach program last week. The program, called El Portal, will help educate Latino families , especially those in East and Southeast Los Angeles, about Alzheimer's, dementia and related disorders.
El Portal is the nation's first Alzheimer's program designed to teach Spanish-speaking families what Alzheimer's is and how they can care for loved ones who suffer from the disease.
Memory loss is a primary symptom of Alzheimer's and the disease can cause disorientation, depression and the deterioration of body functions.
The federal Food and Drug Administration's advisory board last week unanimously recommended the marketing of tacrine, the first drug shown to be effective against Alzheimer's disease. The FDA, which normally follows the recommendations of its advisory panels, is expected to give its approval.
Although it might not be effective with all patients, researchers believe tacrine can partially reverse the loss of some mental functions associated with Alzheimer's. Until now, doctors could only treat specific symptoms of the disease.
If approved, tacrine would become the first Alzheimer's medication sanctioned by the drug agency. It could become available to patients in a couple of weeks, or at least within a few months, according to officials of the FDA and Warner-Lambert Co., which makes tacrine.
As many as 4 million Americans are affected by Alzheimer's. The disease, which primarily affects people over 65, is ultimately fatal.
"Everybody thinks the Latino community is very young," said Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park), whose district has a large Latino constituency. "We are very young. But we are aging."
Trejo said some Latinos have told her they thought forgetfulness--one symptom of Alzheimer's--was just a natural part of the aging process.
Trejo said Latinos would tell her: "People keep telling me it's normal that (mom) behaves this way or that mom doesn't remember who I am anymore."
El Portal's bilingual staff of seven plans to dispel that and other misperceptions through advertising campaigns and a grass-roots approach of going out to coin laundries, grocery stores and churches to let Latinos know about the program, Trejo said.
"The few (Latinos) we have found have come in tears when they find out there is help . . . and they don't have to do it alone and there are Spanish-speakers who understand culturally what they're living through," said Trejo.
Bob Martinez, director of California's Department of Aging, said Latinos sometimes are reluctant to seek help or tell someone what is happening because they believe in strong families and taking care of their own.
"Some of them come from a part of the world where you wouldn't dream of telling anyone what's going on," out of pride, Martinez said.
A help line--(800) 63-EL PORTAL--is available for Latino care givers who are looking for support groups, medical and social service agencies and information on how to care for a person with Alzheimer's. Both English- and Spanish-language staff members are available to answer calls.
If El Portal's three-year, $1.5-million federal-state grant is not renewed, Trejo said, she hopes her staff will be absorbed into mainstream agencies so they can continue helping Latino families.