amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Guillermo Chacon, A Leading Voice for Healthy Latino Communities

chaconGuillermo Chacon The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in 2019 Latinos accounted for nearly 30% of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., despite making up only 18% of the population. Since 2003, the Latino Commission on AIDS, with the help of the Hispanic Federation, has designated October 15 as National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD), sponsoring events and activities to promote HIV prevention and awareness among the Latino community.

A leading advocate of health equity for the Latino community, Guillermo Chacon is president of the Latino Commission on AIDS and founder of the Hispanic Health Network. At the Commission, Chacon played a key role launching the first NLAAD in 2003. We spoke with him about the interwoven issues of immigration and public health, structural inequities facing Latinos, and applying lessons learned to slow HIV diagnoses in Hispanic communities.

How did you find your way from studying education at the National University of El Salvador to community organizing? 

At a very young age, I remember telling my parents that I wanted to become a teacher. I have a lot of respect for anyone in the field of education, public service or healthcare. A brutal civil war forced me to leave El Salvador. In the U.S. I met Dennis Deleon, who was the second president of the Latino Commission on AIDS. He hired me to lead the Community Development program at the Commission in 1995. Dennis took me under his wing—I became his mentee and, later on, vice president at the Commission. Unfortunately, he passed on due to complications of HIV in 2009.

Why is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day important and how has it evolved over the years?

Successful HIV outcomes require consistent access to care and medication.We saw the need to increase HIV testing, education, and visibility in our communities throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories. Since 2003, the community awareness campaign has become a national community mobilization and social messaging campaign that focuses on ending the HIV epidemic in the U.S. In past years, NLAAD focused more on HIV testing. It has since expanded its prevention message to include pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), treatment, linkage-retention in care, viral suppression, and Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U). The campaign also added a national web-based educational component—through national partnerships— ensuring that our communities can access updated information in both English and Spanish.

You were recently sworn in as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). In that capacity, what are you working on and what are your goals? 

I am immersing myself in the work that needs to happen through the committees in PACHA. I want to ensure I am engaged to provide recommendations that will have positive outcomes on the health of communities impacted by HIV throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories. I am committed to bringing a community perspective to the process of updating the National HIV Strategy and unveiling the strategy to end HIV in the U.S. by the end of 2021.

The CDC estimates that of the approximately 37,000 new HIV diagnoses in 2019 in the U.S., more than 1 in 4 were among Latinos. Why do you think the rates are so high?

First, there are structural and historic social, racial, and ethnic inequities. Social determinants of health are associated with HIV infection, prevention access, health care and treatment, and access to health insurance, and they include racial/ethnic discrimination (racism), xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, language barriers, poverty, and health literacy.
We need to expand health care utilization, encourage multi-language communication, have open discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity and other issues that impact HIV risk. We also need to develop culturally and linguistically sensitive campaigns to increase awareness of HIV testing, prevention options and the importance of staying in care to reach HIV viral suppression, and education about U=U.

You serve as board chair of the New York Immigration Coalition. How do you see this issue as connected to your community work advancing HIV and COVID health equity?

Chacon played a key role launching the first NLAAD in 2003.About 45% of Hispanics/Latinx recently diagnosed with HIV are foreign-born. Many communities most impacted by COVID-19 were predominantly immigrant communities. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and the world, our nation was ramping up efforts to address a different epidemic, HIV. Successful HIV outcomes require consistent access to care and medication, as does harnessing the preventive benefits of HIV treatment adherence. Similarly, key tools in HIV prevention are HIV testing and PrEP, which necessitate access to health services. Yet with options for medical care reduced, social distancing guidelines in place, and fears about COVID-19 exposure, we have seen COVID-19 threatening access to HIV care and prevention services and national efforts to address HIV.

Do you see signs of progress for the Latino community against HIV, and lessons to be applied going forward?

Yes, the main progress is the growing commitment to be open to learn more about the impact of HIV, to test for HIV, and to develop a sense of solidarity with the over a quarter million Hispanics/Latinos living with HIV in the U.S. The current Miss Universe, Andrea Meza, originally from Mexico, accepted our offer to be our Madrina (Godmother) and share her voice to promote HIV awareness and testing in the U.S. We welcome her warmly and her commitment is a positive sign for our communities. Everyone can make a difference to design a world without AIDS!