For Latino Community, AIDS Comes by Way of Heroin

Jose Cardenas, Morning Call (Allentown, Penn), Dec. 28

After Miguel Nieves found his 26-year-old son, Miguel Jr., dead from brain cancer in their south Bethlehem home, doctors informed him that the young man was also carrying the HIV virus.

Long before the death seven months ago, Nieves suspected his son, who had dabbled in the South Side heroin scene, could be infected with the disease that the father knew all too well.

Nieves, 48, contracted HIV about two decades ago, when he was a heroin user fresh from Puerto Rico, swapping needles with other addicts on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y.

In Bethlehem, his son fell into the same cycle that Nieves left behind 13 years before. “He started using here, on the streets,” said Nieves at his home in the Lynfield housing development. “His friends got him involved, lamentably.”

For too many Latino men, whether originally from Bethlehem or Allentown or transplants from New York, New Jersey or Puerto Rico, the story of heroin use that leads to HIV infection remains a common one. The lingering heroin problem in the Latino community is largely responsible for the group’s disproportionate representation on Bethlehem’s toll of HIV/AIDS cases, according to statistics from the city’s health bureau and health workers.

In Bethlehem, Latinos make up about 18 percent of the population, but even in years past when their numbers were smaller, they accounted for as many as 70 percent of the city’s HIV/AIDS cases.

Since 1982, Bethlehem has recorded 315 HIV/AIDS cases, 208 of whom have been Latinos.

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According to statistics by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Latinos in the Northeast, who are predominantly Puerto Ricans, have up to four times the incidence of AIDS as Latinos in some western states, where the much larger Latino communities are predominantly composed of Mexican-Americans.

And while Latino men in the West fall into the national trend by contracting HIV predominantly through homosexual sex, Puerto Ricans on the East Coast, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics, contract the disease predominantly through intravenous drug use.

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