Interview with Omar Martinez on Latinos en Pareja

According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, in 2011, Latinos in the US represented 21% of new HIV infections (10,159) while representing approximately 16% of the total US population. Latino men who have sex with men (MSM)  are especially impacted, they represent 72% (7,266) of all new HIV infections among Latinos.

Omar Martinez, JD, MPH, MS is a postdoctoral research fellow at the HIV Center for Clinical and  Behavioral Studies at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He is currently being mentored by Elwin Wu, Associate Director of the Social Intervention Group.  As a gay, Latino, immigrant, Martinez is committed to address the behavioral and social issues that have contributed to these health disparities affecting Latinos in the United States.

In order to combat these daunting statistics with action, Martinez has been funded for Latinos en Pareja, a pilot study funded by NIMH. Latinos en Pareja serves to help Latino men and their male partners develop skills in self-care in regards to HIV/AIDS and stimulant use, communication, and relationship strengthening. The study is an adaptation of Connect ‘n Unite (CNU) which is guided under the leadership of Elwin Wu.

An interview with Omar Martinez can be found down below.

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How did you get interested in this particular research?

Martinez: As an early stage investigator, I strive to develop innovative HIV prevention interventions through the use of community-based participatory research and mixed methods approaches to meet the growing health needs of Latino men who have sex with men (MSM). I have continued my research focus on health promotion and disease prevention among Latino MSM and other vulnerable populations. In addition to my research on health promotion and disease prevention, I have worked in a number of legal aid agencies providing legal services to immigrants in the United States.

What have been some of your initial findings?

Martinez: We started our project in January 2014. Since then, we have published two manuscripts and presented our work at national and international conferences. Two additional manuscripts are under review. In a paper published at the Journal of Medical Internet Research we described the social media recruitment strategies to reach Latino gay couples. In just 1 month, we recruited all of our subjects and reached more than 35,658 participants through different channels. One of the major successes of our social media recruitment campaign was to build a strong stakeholder base that became involved early on in all aspects of the research process—from pilot study writing and development to recruitment and retention. In addition, the variety of “messages” used across different social media platforms (including Facebook, the “Latinos en Pareja” study website, Craigslist, and various smartphone applications such as Grindr, SCRUFF, and Jack’d) helped recruit Latino gay couples. We also relied on a wide range of community-based organizations across New York City to promote the study and build in the social media components.

Through quantitative methods, we explored the predictors of problematic alcohol consumption among a diverse sample of predominantly Spanish-speaking Latino MSM in New York City. In addition, we further analyzed prevalence estimates of problematic alcohol consumption, depression and childhood sexual abuse among this group. There is a profound need to seek concrete solutions to address such immediate health needs in the context of substance abuse but also to work toward long-term responses at the structural and policy levels.

What type of support have you gotten from SIG mentorship?

Martinez:  Through SIG I have worked on research projects with my scientific mentor, Dr. Elwin Wu. This opportunity has enabled me to take advantage of potential research collaborations and seminars on the current SIG HIV projects in Central Asia, with a particular interest on HIV prevention and drug use among sex workers and immigrants. The major components of my post-doctoral training include the development of research and professional skills, mentored research work to address health disparities among vulnerable populations and academic coursework in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Biostatistics Department.

Do you plan to continue with research topic in the future?

Martinez:  I have made recent steps toward this goal with the initial conceptualization and development of a NIDA grant to develop a couple-based HIV/STI prevention intervention for Latino MSM in same-sex relationships. While individual and contextual factors continue to drive the high rates of HIV among vulnerable MSM populations, MSM have the fewest, population-specific, rigorously tested HIV interventions reported in the scientific literature as of 2013. There is a compelling need for renewed efforts to address sexual HIV transmission—and, concomitantly, the spread of STIs—among MSM, and particularly among monolingual Spanish-speaking Latino MSM. In addition, prompted by the initial findings of my proposal, I am currently working with Drs. Elwin Wu and Theo Sandfort on another study proposal to be submitted to NIMH to prevent HIV transmission among young Latino MSM.

What type of impact would you like for your research to have?

Martinez: Given the tremendous need for original and innovative research initiatives aimed at improving the health outcomes of Latino and sexual-minority immigrants, my long-term career objective is to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at a top research institution to conduct HIV research. Building on my experience in immigration law, legal research legal research, health policy and health disparities research, I plan on developing HIV prevention interventions for sexual minority immigrants and proposing national and international policy changes.

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