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Hispanics With HIV Face Large Health Issues

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About 350 people are newly-diagnosed with HIV each year in Bexar County.

Every year in Bexar County, more than 350 people are newly-diagnosed with HIV. While better medicines have created longer life spans for people infected with the virus, other related health problems are wreaking havoc with their lives, especially Hispanics living with HIV.

Fifty-two-year-old Carlos of San Antonio is a living example of the progress made in the fight against HIV, the virus that can lead to deadly AIDS. As a young man who chose a lifestyle of drugs, drinking and sex with multiple male partners. He contracted HIV in 1990.

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Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Barbara Taylor, MD, is an infectious disease specialist at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.

"I was 24. I should have known better," Carlos said. "I thought, you know, it was a death sentence. I didn’t think I was going to be here 26 years later."

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Barbara Taylor of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio says antiretroviral drugs have a made a huge difference for HIV patients.

"HIV was a death sentence. And now they’re living long and normal lives," Taylor pointed out. "There’s really no limit to the lifespan with these medications. If you’re living with HIV and you take your meds you should live the same lifespan as someone without HIV lives."

That’s good news. But here’s the flip side. HIV is life long and creates a chronic inflammation in the body that triggers health problems that are special challenges for Hispanics, like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Many Hispanics are genetically predisposed to these conditions. Plus, some of the early HIV medications, now discontinued, put patients at greater risk of heart disease.

HIV was a death sentence. And now they're living long and normal lives. ~ Barbara Taylor, MD, UT Health Science Center

Taylor has been studying the issue. Now she’s on a mission to get primary care physicians and infectious disease doctors to be more proactive about helping HIV patients live their best lives.

"I think it’s really important for us as providers to think about people living with HIV as the whole person in front of us," Taylor stressed. "With these extra years of life that you’re given, we want to make sure that they’re as healthy as possible. If we want people to live into their 80s and 90s and 100s healthily with HIV, then we have to address these other things."

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Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Carlos, a San Antonio man, has been living with HIV for 26 years. He wears a Fitbit and works out six days a week to control other potential health problems.

For Carlos, who doesn't want us to use his last name, that means working out at the gym six days a week. "One day I work out strength training, and then another day cardio, strength, cardio, strength, cardio, and then I take one day off," he said.

Carlos is fit and trim. He’s active in the local HIV community, and he preaches his gospel of healthy living to whoever will listen.

"As a Hispanic man, my ethnicity puts me at a higher risk of diabetes and heart risk, high cholesterol. We need to take care of ourselves better than what we’re doing now," he added.

Between his darkest fears and his dearest hopes, Carlos still looks forward to a long and healthy life. He lost his partner to AIDS in the 90s. Today, he’s grateful for his extra years. "I’m going to live it as healthy and as well as I can," Carlos said.

We need to take care of ourselves better than what we're doing now. ~ Carlos, 52-year-old San Antonio HIV patient

HIV can turn into AIDS and it is still a fatal illness without treatment. But for more than 6,000 people living with HIV in Bexar and surrounding counties, Carlos’ story and Taylor’s research provide much hope.