While the number of Nebraskans newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS has declined for the past few decades, officials say refugees and immigrants still face heightened risks due to information gaps, language barriers and less access to medical care.

But the Nebraska AIDS Project (NAP), which provides education, care and advocacy, is changing that, said Enrique Lopez, NAP’s prevention and outreach specialist. From a new location in Benson to more outreach, Lopez said NAP is spreading the word.

“HIV is not a death sentence anymore,” Lopez said. “Education can prevent someone from having to worry about insurance and a health condition for the rest of their lives. That’s especially important for someone who doesn’t speak English, or for someone who’s dealing with refugee status.”

In 2021, Nebraska minorities were nearly twice to six times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Refugees noted language barriers, discrimination and oppression, and access as their three greatest challenges to getting health care in Nebraska, according to a Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services survey. A DHHS report from 2021 found only 19.2% of Omaha refugees reported had tested for HIV.

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the immune system. Left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which leaves the body extremely vulnerable to certain diseases and cancers.

Lopez works directly with Latine and Spanish-speaking communities, providing personalized support regardless of immigration or refugee status.

“I’m coming from a background where I was also someone who was in poverty and have parents who are immigrants,” Lopez said. “For outreach, it even helps to receive this information from someone who is also Brown. I think people tend to respond better to someone who looks like them.”

In addition, NAP has hired more bilingual employees and developed a committee of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking people who work under Lopez. But getting information to people is more than just speaking the language.

“It’s not as easy as just showing up in South Omaha and having people listen to me,” Lopez says. “There are so many different things that might make someone completely turn off their ears to the topic I’m speaking about before I get a chance to connect with them.”

Lopez has found success at the Mexican Consulate of Omaha. As people wait in the lobby, Lopez does a brief presentation in Spanish and then takes a seat nearby in case anyone has questions.

Tommy Young-Dennis, outreach manager at NAP also said the organization tries to keep messaging simple to reach as wide an audience as possible.

“We don’t want to put too much information out there and run the risk of missing the mark when we go to serve those people,” Young-Dennis said. “We don’t want to talk over anyone; we want to give them digestible information.”

NAP also hopes to be more accessible at their new headquarters to 63rd and Maple Streets, which opened April 7.

Testing is always free, quick and easy, Lopez said and NAP’s Spanish-speaking staff is available to work with clients and no paperwork or IDs are required.

Free pop-up testing will be available at the Cinco de Mayo Health Fair this year in partnership with the South Omaha Community Care Council. NAP will have an RV for gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV testing.

NAP also provides prevention education and case management online and in person. Their Omaha office offers walk-in testing every Monday and Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m., or you can schedule an appointment at www.nap.org. For direct Spanish information, email Enrique Lopez at enriquel@nap.org.

contact the writer at news@thereader.com

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