Media Voices

National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day launched

by Jodi Rave – Lee Enterprises

Mark Parra, a gay man who has lived with the HIV virus for 20 years, embraces the first-ever National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which takes place on Wednesday.

Parra vividly remembers the day he walked into a San Francisco clinic to see if he was HIV positive. As he waited for the results, the Navajo man prayed to the Creator.

“Oh God, if you allow me to test negative, I’ll change the way I live,” Parra said on Tuesday. But his pleas didn’t work. “I basically walked around San Francisco for two days in shock.”

In 1987, AIDS was a death sentence. “My mom — it killed me — she was silent on the phone,” he said. “I knew she was crying.”

Even though most Americans have been aware of HIV/AIDS for the last 25 years, health leaders and community advocates only recently began addressing it as an epidemic in Indian Country. More than 1 million Americans have HIV, and 40,000 new infections are diagnosed each year. Native people have the third highest rate of AIDS diagnoses of all races in the U.S., ranking behind blacks and Hispanics.

But it’s not something people talk about.

“Stigma, silence and behavior are fueling this epidemic,” said Charles Grim, director of the Indian Health Service. “Although these are sensitive issues, we must begin to talk openly and honestly about HIV/AIDS in our communities.”

People are encouraged to discuss the issue with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

It was only last year that the first Native North American HIV/AIDS Conference was held in Anchorage, Alaska. The event drew more than 1,000 people, said Elton Naswood, program coordinator for the Red Circle Project, a cultural network for Native gay men in Las Angeles.

Naswood said he isn’t surprised that it’s taken nearly three decades for a National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to finally occur. Native people only make up 1 percent of the U.S. population and tend to be ignored when it comes to AIDS research, he said.

“HIV/AIDS, in terms of funding, is one of the most politicized diseases in the country,” said Naswood. “Projects like mine are usually at the bottom of the list.”

Monica Ruiz, acting policy director of The Foundation for AIDS Research, said the newfound awareness can be attributed to new AIDS cases in Indian Country. “What is crucial is we started seeing a shift in the way HIV is affecting the U.S. population. In the early ’80s, white gay men were being infected. Now, it’s impacting communities of color.”

Ruiz and Naswood both agreed the rising numbers of Native AIDS cases can be attributed to better reporting methods, which typically ignored Natives infected with the HIV virus, which can lead to a crash of the body’s immune system.

Meanwhile, Native AIDS awareness organizers around the country are doing their best to educate others on how to heighten AIDS prevention efforts. Events are being scheduled across the country in recognition of Wednesday’s National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

The Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairman’s Health Board in South Dakota is promoting its first HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, as is the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D.

“In addition to raising awareness, this will be a time to remember those whose lives have been claimed by the illness,” said Suzanne Shields, the UTTC Student Health Center director.

The National Native American AIDS Prevention Center in Denver is hosting an event Wednesday in the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs room in Washington, D.C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new HIV testing recommendations that call for routine voluntary screening in health care settings for every person between the ages of 13 and 64. Nearly one in four people who have HIV in the United States do not know they are infected with it.

“When people know their status, they can change risk behaviors, benefit from earlier access to life-extending treatment, and reduce transmission,” said Grimm. “In honor of National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I encourage all Native people to be screened for HIV and to know their status.”

• Jodi Rave is a Lee News Wire columnist and can be reached at jodi.rave@lee.net or 800-366-7186.

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