Nonprofit FLAS receives grant to launch to help HIV-positive Hispanics in Houston

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- An estimated 1.1 million people in the United States live with HIV but one in seven don't even know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As we have seen with other diseases, Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by HIV, but now a local nonprofit is launching a new initiative that works directly with Houston's primarily Spanish-speaking community to encourage healthier sexual behaviors and reduce the risk of infection.

"It was the drugs. It was the alcohol. It was all there," said Eddie Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has been very open about his younger days and how he became HIV positive.

"I got HIV because I had unprotected sex," he said.

Gonzalez said, to him, it was a very open world having sex with different partners of both sexes.

"Whatever I went through in my life, it actually built up to be this better person of myself, a better me," he said.

Ten years ago, Gonzalez was not very comfortable talking about this. He kept his HIV status to himself and told close friends he had cancer instead.

"I think it was the easiest answer. Easy way out," he said. "It stuck like that for at least two years until it just became a burden, and I was like, 'No, I can't hold this anymore,'" he said.

Gonzalez has since shifted his focus to telling his story and changing the fear many still have of the disease while fighting the HIV stigma, especially in the Hispanic community.

According to data from the Houston Health Department in 2019, before the pandemic, the Latino population in the greater Houston area accounted for 29% of all HIV/Aids cases. The African American population accounted for 50%.

Compared to national statistics, Houston's averages are significantly higher, with the Black community accounting for 40.3% and Latinos accounting for 24.7%.

"HIV does not discriminate, you know, it affects the gay community, the bi community, the straight community," said Gonzalez. "If we don't change our mindset on that, we are not going to stop the disease."

Gonzalez began collaborating with FLAS, a nonprofit that has provided prevention and testing services in the community since 1994.

"We came with an idea to just work together and find new ways to reach people, reach the Latino community and how to not be afraid of HIV, to talk about HIV, to get tested, to look for treatment, if you have HIV," he said.

He began writing plays loosely based on his life, and FLAS began showcasing them to the Hispanic community. One of his plays, Stigma Zero-Positivo, was turned into a short film.

"We have over 30,000 people in the city of Houston that are living with HIV," said Elia Chino, the founder of FLAS.

When she founded FLAS 28 years ago, Chino said she saw the need in the Hispanic community. Many were getting infected and dying, and there was a lack of information. In addition, resources were scarce and to this day, she said, not much has changed.

"The bigger barrier is the stigma. People, they are scared to get tested for HIV," she said.

FLAS recently received a grant from the CDC, allowing them to launch Project VIVE. The focus is to find people with HIV in the Hispanic community who are in hiding and get them treated quickly.

The organization will be focusing its attention mainly on Spanish-speaking communities in Houston, where there is a lack of education, low literacy levels, poverty, and no health insurance.

"HIV is still here and we want to continue providing information, education, and finding the people that have the virus," Chino said.

She also said many still don't know there are treatments, despite there being a pill which can prevent infection. It's called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP. FLAS offers this pill for free.

"This is what HIV looks like, you know, I'm just a regular guy just trying to live my life," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said the more we talk about HIV, the more we can correct the misconceptions and break the stigma.

"People have to get educated to understand HIV. If they don't get educated, we're not gonna stop the stigma and if we don't stop, the stigma, people living with HIV are gonna be afraid to come out, are gonna be afraid to go get tested or gonna be afraid to continue treatment. This is how we are going to keep the infections going with HIV," he said.
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