Twenty years ago, when Sergio Farfán got a form of pneumonia so debilitating he could barely breathe, emergency room personnel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discovered that his immune system was effectively dead because of AIDS. "They gave me a 2 percent chance to live," Farfán says.
"They gave me a 2 percent chance to live. I began to prepare myself for death." — Sergio Farfán, 60
One doctor even told him he should go home and die, so people who could benefit from drugs wouldn't be shortchanged. "I went home and was incredibly depressed," Farfán, now 60, recalls. "Then I got really angry and went back to the hospital and told them I needed a new doctor." With medication, the architect — a native of Mexico City — regained his strength. Then, he became an activist, starting the Louisiana Latino Health Coalition for HIV/AIDS Awareness.
Latinos get HIV at 2.5 times the rate of whites. Most cases are the result of men having sex with men, as was the case with Farfán and a man he had met in Dallas. Once infected, many Latinos face barriers that others do not. Some immigrants don't speak English or are afraid of shaming their families by admitting their condition, Farfán says.
Then there are the limitations on HIV services in some southern states; for political reasons, funding them has not been a priority. "Ninety-five percent of people on the waiting list for HIV treatment are in the South," says Charles King of Housing Works, a New York City – based agency that finds housing, treatment, and job training for people with HIV.
Medication for HIV/AIDS is expensive: It can cost $1,000 or more per month. But allowing people to go without medication costs far more, if they become ill with one of the many complications of AIDS that can necessitate a hospital stay.