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Why Latin American HIV prevention matters

Why Latin American HIV prevention matters


Did you know that the Latino population in the UK has grown nearly four-fold since 2011?

Almost unbelievably, and almost from nowhere, the population is now comparable in size to the more established Polish and Chinese communities.

The key reason is that Latin Americans were amongst the worst affected by the severe economic crises in Spain and Portugal, and came to the UK looking for work. Just take a trip to Elephant and Castle shopping centre, or El Pueblito Paisa market at Seven Sisters and see for yourself.

Next question – which group has the highest HIV prevalence in the UK? Yes, you guessed it. Some reports indicate that Latin American MSM (men who have sex with men) have the highest rates of HIV of any sector of the population in the UK. Why? Well, that’s a complicated one, but worth taking a moment to think about.

Maybe think about why you came to London, or why your friends did. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons is that the capital is one of the global epicentres of gay culture. Think about how many gay bars, clubs, saunas, social groups, sports groups and queer organisations there are in the city. Think about the huge gay pride parade and the queer film festival. I could go on. The bright lights of London, its relative acceptance of queer identities and opportunities for freedom of expression mean it is a big draw for LGBTI Latin Americans.

Once arriving here, Latino gay and bisexual men are in a huge new city crammed full of partying, sex, drugs and men. Add cultural factors to this irresistible cocktail and you have the driving force behind the HIV epidemic among the community.

Cultural factors include widespread discrimination across key social spheres back in Latin America – such as the home, workplace, school and church, silence around sexuality, damaging gender and sexuality norms linked to machismo, and a strong notion of family respect and honour – familismo.

Migration itself is a factor too – in moving from one side of the world to the other, social ties are cut and links with family and friends severed. This can lead some Latin Americans finding themselves lonely and isolated and lacking the strong support network they grew accustomed to back home. What’s more, stereotypes here in the UK about Latin Americans being highly sexual and overtly masculine can further perpetuate low self-esteem and be damaging to self-image, particularly when linked to negative and judgemental comments around prostitution.

Together these factors combine to increase the likelihood of low self-worth and risk taking behaviour, which can be manifested as unprotected sex or damaging drug or alcohol use. Language barriers and a lack of familiarity with the health care system can further increase the risk of becoming HIV positive.

At the same time there is a lack of culturally and language specific support for Latin American gay and bisexual men. Without doubt the result is a perfect storm, which leaves this group at higher risk. Metro’s Latino Seguro programme is one of a small number of programmes looking at the entrenched social, cultural and individual factors that result in higher HIV prevalence amongst Latin American men and here’s to more work in this much needed area.

Check out the website to find out more about Metro’s Latino Seguro, Latin American HIV prevention programme.

Dr Tony Furlong is the project lead for Metro charity’s Latin American and Eastern European HIV prevention and support. The project is funded by the MAC AIDS Fund. This article is Tony’s own opinion and not necessarily the view of Metro as an organisation.