The following is a guest post by Paul Kawata, Executive Director of the National Minority AIDS Council:

Today is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day and an important opportunity for those of us on the front lines of the struggle against HIV/AIDS to consider the needs of this underserved and growing population.

Despite making up just 15 percent of America’s population, they account for 18 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS.  The rate of infection among Latino men and women is three and four times higher, respectively, than their white counterparts.

But this disturbing trend is even more acute within the gay Latino community.  More than half (55 percent) of all Latinos diagnosed with HIV are men who have sex with men (MSM).  And of all new HIV infections among MSM, 19 percent are Latino.

Infection rates are particularly high among gay Latino youth.  43 percent of all newly infected Latino MSM are between the ages of 13 and 29.  Perhaps even more startling, a recent study of 21 major American cities found that among gay Latino youth infected with HIV, 6 out of 10 were unaware of their status.

Addressing the specific needs of this community is not only a moral imperative, it’s critical for the health of our nation.  As of 2008, more than one in five children in the U.S. under the age of 18 were Latino.  This ratio is even greater (one in four) for children under five.  Our nation’s population growth is being driven by the Latino community, and this trend will only continue.

The convergence of risk factors within the Latino community poses a serious public health concern, but also offers hope.  With more than one-third of the population under the age of 18, comprehensive and culturally appropriate sex education programs could have a significant impact on HIV prevention efforts.

What’s more, because children of immigrants often serve as translators and cultural liaisons for adults in their homes, these programs could assist in the dissemination of information to adult populations as well.

Educating young Latinos about the indiscriminate nature of HIV/AIDS may also assist in removing the stigma associated with the disease, particularly for gay Latinos.  But this cannot be done without engaging in a public dialogue about both this disease and its impact on our Latino brothers and sisters.

On this National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, I hope you’ll join me in that dialogue.

Human Rights Campaign | HRC Back Story