By Mey Lyn Mitteenn
San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
In just a few months, the life of a San Fernando Valley woman was turned upside down. First, her husband was deported. He was able to return after spending two years in Mexico, but the happiness of the reunification did not last long. After a little while, the woman discovered that her partner had infected her with HIV.
“She originally came to the clinic for a different reason and after seeing our resources, she decided to get tested,” says Leopoldo Cabral, director of the HIV Services for El Proyecto del Barrio. He adds that this happened three years ago — exactly during the time when the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys detected a rise in HIV cases.
He indicates that according to the latest data, in 2018 there were 3,600 people infected in that area and over 4,240 by the end of 2021. That is an increase of 18% in just three years.
Meanwhile, health authorities indicate that there are currently 57,700 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County.
“Recently, we have seen an increase [of cases] in men and women over 50 years old. Sometimes couples split up or a partner dies and they return to sexual activity without protection. Some believe that it is not necessary anymore because pregnancy is not usual at that age; others never had sex, condoms or birth control as part of their conversation — especially in Latino culture,” indicates Cabral.
The goal now is to control the spike in cases and educate people about HIV, a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. One of the places committed to this purpose is El Proyecto del Barrio and its four clinics in the San Fernando Valley — located in Panorama City, Arleta, Winnetka and Northridge. “We offer rapid tests to people in our community. They are free and we do not ask about immigration status or request health insurance,” assures Cabral.
The test is fast. You just need to sit down, provide your name, phone number and address, and extend a hand. The medical worker will insert a small needle into one of your fingers. The “piquetito” (small prick) will hurt for a few seconds and a few drops of your blood will be placed in a chemical liquid. A minute later, you will have your results.
It should be noted that in order to detect the virus, the test should take place at least two weeks after exposure to HIV. “Although at the moment there is no cure, there are medicines that help prevent, control and reduce the disease to the point that it is not transmissible,” says Cabral.
One of them is called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill with 99.8% of effectiveness that some people take to prevent them from obtaining HIV. Cabral explains that this medicine is recommended to people considered “at risk,” such as sex workers or people with more than one partner. He also clarifies that HIV does not happen only in the LGBTQ community. “It can be transmitted through needle sharing with addicts and from mothers to babies if women do not have prenatal care on time.”
However, there is another reason: infidelity. Cabral remembered the case of a woman in her 50’s that went to the clinic to get tested because she suspected her husband was cheating. She was not economically independent and without any other place to go, she decided to stay home and started taking PrEP to take care of herself and her family. “In the Latino community, this conversation is really hard because sex is still taboo. Some ask “why am I going to get tested if I only have one partner?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV at least once as part of their routine health care. Different medical organizations agree that getting tested is important to control HIV on time and avoid spreading the virus in the community.
The other medicine is called post-exposure prophylaxis (PeP), which is for emergencies. One of the workers in the HIV services at El Proyecto del Barrio, Iranna Serrano, says that there are cases when people engage in sexual activity and maybe the condom breaks. If the other person feels that they have been exposed to HIV, he or she has a 72-hour window to take PeP to reduce the chance of getting infected.
El Proyecto del Barrio clinics have six counselors and two PrEP navigators, who help with the testing and provide information about the medication available. The team is bilingual and has a diversity of ages to make the patient feel comfortable talking about this topic.
The team emphasized that education is key to be able to reduce the cases of HIV and the stigma around the illness. “There was a young man who tested positive and he told us that his mother had accommodated a separate set of cutlery for him at home. She perceived him as ‘contaminated.’ You would never expect your family to label you like that. The community should know that HIV does not get transmitted through sharing dishes, shaking hands or shared clothing.”
“Testing positive for HIV is not a death sentence. It is not like years ago when you needed to ingest 50 pills to be able to control the illness. Now it is just one pill that will allow you to have not only a quality life but a long one,” says the director of the HIV services at El Proyecto del Barrio. He adds that it is important to understand and educate yourself on what affects your community due that a large percentage of HIV cases are people of color.
For more information about testing and hours of operation, call 1(818) 892-8630 or visit: elproyecto.us.