HIV prevention goes to the barrio

Building on the strengths of Latino culture, a new project at the School of Nursing aims to teach Latino youth how to protect themselves from diseases, including HIV, that have a high incidence in the Latino population.

Developed by Latinos, the project targets Latino youth in North Philadelphia. After two successful pilot tests, the Latino Youth Health Promotion Project is set to start officially in May.

Assistant Professor of Nursing Antonia Villarruel, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, the project’s principal investigator, said that this is one of the first HIV prevention programs specifically designed to reach Spanish-speaking adolescents.

Using Spanish is only one of the ways the project aims to reach this population. Another is by using culturally sensitive interventions.

Villarruel said the project will use Latino cultural strengths such as family, which she extolled as “an extremely strong force in the culture. The participants can talk to their families — not just the parents, but the uncles and the aunts.” While the families may not be happy that their children are sexually active, they would be even more unhappy seeing them come to harm. “It’s support that they can count on,” Villarruel said — and that the project is counting on.

HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are not the only targeted diseases. “The program aims to reduce the risk of acquiring a number of diseases overrepresented in the Latino population, such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes”, said Project Director Margarita Bleier, who came here from the Dominican Republic when she was 14.

The project also recognizes that machismo has its good points as well as its bad and focuses on ways to take advantage of the strengths. “Machismo is also about protecting yourself and protecting the family,” Villarruel said. The project also hopes to overcome the downside of machismo’s counterpart, marianismo, which encourages girls to be submissive.

“We teach them that the girls are just as responsible as the guys for having a condom available, and that both should refuse to have sex without a condom,” Bleier said.

To make all this work, the kids role-play saying no to sex without condoms. “It teaches them a level of comfort to deal with the idea of condoms,” Bleier said.

The project also teaches exercise, hygiene, the dangers of drugs — including cigarettes and alcohol — and the facts about HIV: that you can safely share utensils and a bathroom, but not a needle, for example. It teaches them about healthy ways of cooking and eating, and avoiding the new Hispanic-American food groups of fried foods, pork and sugar.

“If they only learned half of it they’d be benefiting,” Bleier said.

The project contains three key elements that should make this program successful. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, effective HIV interventions are based on behavioral change theory tailored to the culture of the target population and provide opportunities for skills practice — for example how to negotiate condom use and put on condoms,” Villarruel said.

Also working with Villarruel on this project are Professors John and Loretta Sweet Jemmott, of the Annenberg School and the Nursing School, respectively. The Jemmotts designed successful HIV risk-reduction interventions, and tested them primarily in African-American communities.

The project, which offers the students a $20 incentive to come to each session, also succeeds in keeping them coming back because they find it enjoyable, Bleier said. She expects to train 720 adolescents, with the last group of 180 trained in September, reaching out to them through schools and community groups such as ASPIRA and the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Philadelphia. “You have to start somewhere,” she said.

The project is looking to hire and train 32 bilingual facilitators to implement the project.

For information, call Bleier at 215-898-0012.


Originally published on April 20, 2000