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Oct 23, 2017 11:30 AM

U of U-Sponsored SACNAS Explores Health Disparities in the Hispanic Community

In 1969, the U.S. Surgeon General declared near victory over infectious disease when addressing Congress. The rise of HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) makes this declaration a moot point.

Gabriel Wagner, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego, admitted this statement was premature during a session titled Health Disparities in Disease at the 2017 Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in Salt Lake City, University of Utah Health was a major sponsor of the three-day National Diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) conference.

Session speakers meet with attendees after their presentations. From the left, Angelina Hernandez-Carretero, PhD, Sergio Ita, PhD, and Gabriel Wagner, MD. 
Credit: U of U Health.

Born in Lima, Peru, Wagner moved to Ohio at 11 and earned a medical doctorate at The University of Toledo College of Medicine, where his research has focused on HIV and infectious diseases.

Wagner emphasized that despite the stories circling through the media cycle, infectious disease has been on the decline since the turn of the last century, mostly due to improved sanitation, hygiene, and public health systems. Despite these gains, marginalized communities remain at risk.

“Infectious disease is a proxy for poverty and disadvantage in a population that often lacks a political voice,” Wagner said. “This community is often stigmatized.”

He invoked the chicken and the egg to illustrate how poverty increases the risk of infectious disease while the economic burden of disease traps the community in poverty.

Within the Hispanic community, hepatitis C has increased by more than 21 percent compared to non-Hispanic whites in the last decade. According to Wagner, Hispanics are less likely to be referred to a specialist for help compared to other ethnicities.

In addition, tuberculosis and HIV, which are also on the rise in the Hispanic community, are comorbidities commonly associated with IV drug use.

According to Sergio Ita, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego, the rate of HIV has plateaued among gay men, except in the Latino community where it has increased by 14 percent.

“235,600 Latinos are living with HIV, but we believe an estimated 17 percent remain undiagnosed,” said Ita. “We have to step up and take action in our own communities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now funding community-based organizations to help with prevention, testing, and care.

Angelina Hernandez-Carretero, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at University of California San Diego, who spoke about the rise of diabetes in the Hispanic community, raised the role of promotora — lay Hispanic/Latino community members who receive specialized training to provide basic health education — as a powerful mechanism to help their community.

“There needs to be a stronger connection between researchers, clinicians, and the community,” Hernandez-Carretero said. “People from the community helping the community.”

SACNAS is the largest multicultural and multidisciplinary STEM diversity organization in the country. Its mission is to foster the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM.

"The University of Utah enthusiastically came together to support the SACNAS meeting, and the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI) at U of U Health has sponsored the attendance of 12 SACNAS-OHEI (Office of Health Equity Inclusion) Scholars,” said Ana Maria Lopez, MD, MPH, F.A.C.P, director of Cancer Health Equity at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and professor in the Department of Medicine at U of U Health. “These Scholars and all learners in the pipeline represent the impetus for our cross-campus collaboration — to support inclusion in the biomedical, clinical and research workforce.”