ATLANTA — Some of the smartest minds in Metro Atlanta are working to fix a troubling trend.

Research spearheaded by Dr. David Philpott, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found Georgia had the third highest rate of HIV transmission in the country.

His studies showed that while rates of diagnosis declined for white and Black people, the Hispanic population in Georgia was seeing a rise in HIV diagnosis rates. 

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Hundreds of doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Epidemic Intelligence Service listened to Philpott's presentation Tuesday, which focused on HIV transmission rates specifically among the Latino community. 

"A lot of HIV is driven by stigma, discrimination as well as inadequate access to care," Philpott said. "This is a population that’s historically been underserved, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to help prevent HIV infections in any population anywhere in our communities.”

Philpott, along with the Georgia Department of Public Health, several public health departments and Emory healthcare, honed in on five clusters with widespread infection and rapid transmission of HIV. 

Data showed the median age of people in these clusters was 29. More than half of the people infected were Latino, and over 80% had had male-to-make sexual contact. Most people in those clusters also lived in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett Counties. 

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"We detected the networks in which HIV was spreading rapidly," Dr. Carlos Saldana, an HIV medical advisor at Emory, said. "In these networks, HIV spreads at least six times faster than previously estimated national averages." 

Saldana said a lack of healthcare providers, longstanding language barriers and inadequate messaging about HIV prevention and treatment, as well as a fear of possible deportation contributed to fast-spreading rates of HIV diagnoses. 

Eric Rangel, president of Latino Linq, and the Latino Community Fund of Georgia stepped in to try and bridge the gap between academic research and the community. Latino Linq offers free HIV testing, education and other resources to the LGBTQIA-plus community. 

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"We provide these services and folks feel comfortable with it because they see someone who looks like them and speaks their language," Rangel said. "We instill trust in the community to let them know we understand there’s an issue. We want to address it, but we need your input.”

Rangel said he felt as though his organization was making a drastic impact by going to nightclubs and meeting an underserved population. He hopes their efforts make residents feel more comfortable learning about healthcare access and linking them to resources.

"One of them told me 'finally someone is listening to us' or 'finally, there's something that provides a sense of security. I'm able to reach out for help without stigma and I'm able to reach out for help in my own language as well,'" Rangel said. 

Already, the recent HIV transmission study has resulted in public health sites adding more Spanish language resources, hiring more bilingual staff and stronger messaging. Doctors said lowering HIV transmission rates could take years, but Rangel said he would stay resilient and help reverse the trend one person at a time.

"I'm able to give back to the community, help folks get access to care they would have never gotten in their home countries or counties," Rangel said.