It was just few days ago when I learned that March was designated as Women’s History Month. Well, today, an identical thing happened to me which prompted me to put this post together in a hurry. I found out just a few minutes ago that today is National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I also discovered that my ignorance of the day is not surprising given that it is a little known observance day. NNHAAD is a day geared toward drawing attention to and building support for HIV prevention, testing, treatment and care among American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian populations. Here are some facts, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- Among American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN), women account for 29% of the HIV/AIDS diagnoses.
- For Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NH/PI) populations given a diagnosis, 78% were men, 21% were women, and 1% were children (under 13 years of age) in 2005.
- From 2007 to 2010, new HIV infections among AI/NA populations increased by 8.7% (CDC).
While these percentages may seem low, one must remember to take into account the size of these populations compared to more populous races and ethnicities in the U.S. For example, according to the CDC, in 2005 American Indians and Alaska Natives ranked 3rd in rates of HIV/AIDS diagnosis, following blacks and Hispanics. To put this into numbers, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections in 2008 per 100,000 persons were:
- 73.7 Black/African American
- 25.0 Hispanic/Latinos
- 22.85 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders
- 11.9 American Indian and Alaska Native
- 8.2 Whites
- 7.2 Asians
Given that many of these populations live in rural areas, access to health care services can be difficult. Not to mention other roadblocks to obtaining needed services such as language and cultural barriers. Native communities have some of the shortest survival times after diagnosis of HIV/AIDS of all race and ethnicity groups in the U.S.
The report also showed that Native communities are not accessing the much needed care and attention after being diagnosed with HIV. I also learned that about 26% are living with HIV and don’t even know it. So, this means that since they don’t know that they have it, they wouldn’t seek medical help. On the other hand, those who know that they have it, take steps to protect their health and take action to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Thankfully, there are public services like the IHS (Indian Health Service), an agency whose mission is to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level. Our goal is to assure that comprehensive, culturally acceptable personal and public health services are available and accessible to American Indian and Alaska Native people. The IHS operates within Department of Health and Human Services.
The IHS National HIV/AIDS Program is committed to partnering with communities to create lasting change in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We provide programs to assist individuals, families, communities, and health care providers to:
- Understand how HIV is spread, and share knowledge about HIV with others
- Get tested for HIV
- Put policies and procedures in place to offer a HIV testing as a routine part of all health care
- Improve access to care, treatment, and prevention services needed by people living with HIV and AIDS
IHS providers throughout the country are offering screening more often, collaborating with communities to increase education, and offering care or referrals where direct care is not available. We can all help to reduce the stigma within our culture and among health care providers regarding HIV/AIDS.
I was shocked to learn that March 20, 2016 was the tenth anniversary of this annual awareness day. I wonder how many people out there who even know that it exists. Awareness, education and access are key. And I applaud the many dedicated organizations that are currently working hard within the Indigenous communities to break down barriers and to promote HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
The theme for 2016 was: “Hear Indigenous Voices: Uniting the Bold Voices of American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders.” Last year’s was: theme is “Unity in CommUnity, Stand Strong to Prevent HIV.” On this day, we recognize the impact of HIV/AIDS on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities. The theme this year is “Unity in CommUNITY: Stand Strong for HIV Prevention.”
It is my hope and prayer that long after this year’s National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day passes, that more people will find ways to stand strong for the Native communities. We have heard the Indigenous voices, stood with them as we recognized that they are impacted by HIV/AIDS and now we must stand strong for prevention. We have heard the voices, now it is time to be united in the fight to change the tide in this epidemic which discriminates against no one. The HIV/AIDs is not one group’s or community’s fight but everyone’s fight.