After a four-decade fight, public health officials have never had a better understanding of how to treat the virus that causes HIV and AIDS, yet they are falling short when it comes to educating young people of color about how to protect themselves from the dreaded disease.
While whites still make up the largest population of HIV- and AIDS-infected individuals in Orange County, the number of new cases in the Hispanic and African-American communities is on the rise.
“Compared to the 80’s, whites account for a decreasing proportion of the county’s HIV cases, while [Hispanic, Black, and Asian populations] are increasing,” according to a recent OC Community Indicators report.
The county Health Care Agency reported 651 HIV- and AIDS-infected patients from 2011-2012 countywide. Of that total, almost 50 percent were Hispanic, and around 35 percent were between the ages of 20 and 29. Despite these statistics, there are few programs in the county focused on HIV and AIDS awareness for young people of color.
“I think [sex education] in this country is a travesty,” said Samantha, a former sex education teacher who did not want her full name published. “It’s such a critical aspect of physical and mental health, and most of the time it’s too taboo to talk about it.”
The Center OC, a Santa Ana nonprofit focused on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, holds group meetings throughout the week for various age ranges and offers free walk-in HIV testing almost every day. The meetings include LifeTalk, Transgeneros en Accion and Rainbow Juniors.
“These groups are where we can all be comfortable with asking questions that may not fly in other social settings,” said volunteer facilitator Eric Ayala.
At a recent Center OC meeting, a predominantly gay group of about 20 men spoke openly about HIV and AIDS. Group members said the LGBT community is still fighting the perception that they are strictly “gay diseases.”
“I feel like we know more than the average straight person when it comes to sex ed,” said a bisexual man in the group. Others nodded their heads in agreement.
However, those using The Center OC facilities comprise a small fraction of the LGBT community in Orange County. Those who take the time to educate themselves about HIV, AIDS, safe sex and healthy relationships are not part of the high-risk population that public health officials have failed to reach.
While sexual contact remains the top cause of HIV and AIDS transmission in Orange County, 18 percent of patients are infected through intravenous drug use.
Such statistics have led many California counties to initiate syringe exchange programs. These facilities allow anyone to trade their used syringes for new ones, whether for drugs or otherwise.
A study of 81 cities around the world presented to the California Department of Public Health showed that cities with syringe exchange programs had an annual decrease in new HIV infections of 5.8 percent, while the infection rates of cities without programs increased by 5.9 percent annually.
Yet Orange County, despite having the fourth-largest number of HIV and AIDS cases in California, is not among the state’s 36 counties that offer syringe exchange programs, according to the California Department of Public Health.
That one of the most conservative counties in California and nationwide would shy away from such a program does not come as a surprise to those who have been on the front lines of the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Chris Prevatt, former member of the HIV Planning Council, said he has “never seen a willingness on the part of the Orange County Health Care Agency or from the Board of Supervisors to implement any syringe exchange programs.”
HCA spokeswoman Trisha Landquist acknowledged as much, saying “HIV education programs in Orange County use harm reduction strategies and information to address safer needle use.”
Landquist added that the HCA’s Risk-Reduction Education and Community Health Program or REACH distributes “needle-hygiene kits” and “as appropriate” refers people to pharmacies that participate in a statewide program that allows them to distribute hypodermic needles without a prescription.
In cities such as Santa Ana, home to large Latino populations, cultural barriers make the fight against HIV and AIDS even more difficult.
City-data.com reports that about 45 percent of Santa Ana residents are affiliated with a religion. An overwhelming 61 percent of that population observes the Catholic faith. However, no religious conservatives have any proof supporting the notion that abstinence-only education prevents premarital sexual activity, premarital pregnancy or the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases.
While the state can and does mandate comprehensive sex education, efforts by organizations like The Center OC remain available for those seeking information outside of the classroom or conservative household.
As his LifeTalk members begin to leave, Ayala ends his meeting by urging his group members to grab some free condoms on the way out, hollering after them, “Safe sex is good sex!”
Cleo Tobbi is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and graduate of UC Irvine. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.