SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — AIDS rates in the nation's Hispanic community are increasing and, with little notice, have reached what experts are calling a simmering public health crisis.
Though Hispanics are about 14 percent of the U.S. population, they represented 22 percent of new HIV and AIDS diagnoses tallied by federal officials in 2006.
So far, the toll of AIDS in the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority population has been overshadowed by the epidemic among African-Americans and gay white men. Yet in major U.S. cities, as many as one in four gay Hispanic men has HIV, a rate on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
Blacks still have the highest HIV rates in the country, but language difficulties, cultural barriers and, in many cases, issues of legal status make the threat in the Hispanic community unique. For those here illegally, in particular, fear of arrest and deportation presents an obstacle to seeking diagnosis and treatment.
"Officials need to stop downplaying or ignoring what's happening," said Oscar De La O, president of Bienestar, a Hispanic service organization. "We are at the center of the storm."
The problem of AIDS in Hispanics had received scant attention from political and public health officials. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where only two of 17 approved HIV programs target Hispanics, officials have added Spanish-language hotlines, confidential testing sites and other initiatives aimed at filling the gap.
"Hispanics are overrepresented in this epidemic, and we need to target our efforts to them," CDC epidemiologist Kenneth Dominguez said in an interview.
Officials do not have a precise tally of HIV infection nationwide, because many states have not reported figures to the CDC. The 22 percent, a figure that has not been previously released, includes 33 states and Puerto Rico, but not California, where more than 37 percent of the population is Hispanic.