Working to remove HIV/AIDS stigma

Malama Pono — the Hawaiian translation for “taking care righteously” — is a Kaua‘i grassroots counseling and support organization for people infected with, or affected by HIV/AIDS. While the most challenging aspect of Malama Pono’s work is overcoming the stigma and ignorance attached to this worldwide health issue, the organization has been on-island since 1986 trying to educate, provide safe and confidential testing, and compassionate support for families and individuals affected by the disease.

Jason Yaris, the organization’s “Prevention Lead” directs Malama Pono’s education and activity efforts. Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Yaris is all too familiar with the stigma often attached to the subject of HIV. “A lot of people have a hard time talking about it because it includes talking about sex. There is a general stereotype that this is a ‘gay-white-man’s disease,’” Yaris said, “but in fact, the Asian Pacific population is at risk like any other group and needs education and honesty.”

While the highest demographic at-risk groups are intravenous drug users, homosexual males, and heterosexual females, HIV/AIDS can infect anybody. “It doesn’t discriminate. Hiding from it won’ t make you immune,” states the National HIV/AIDS Awareness Web site.

“The challenge on Kaua‘i comes from a general conservative notion that makes people think it’s something that might never happen to them. Since the founding of Malama Pono in 1986 we have visited schools and provided health teachers with learning tools and information,” Yaris said.

Although prevention education is a large part of what Malama Pono does, the group also provides invaluable services in confidential testing and counseling. Many people come to Malama Pono over their family doctor for testing, “because people feel more comfortable with us. We are less formal and seemingly more personal,” said Yaris.

Going to an HIV/AIDS organization rather than the hospital makes the topic more approachable and less daunting, explained Yaris.

This Saturday is the Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Malama Pono will be in the community sharing its knowledge and offering free testing at their office on Rice Street. After Saturday, agencies such as Malama Pono will no longer be able to provide testing due to a new state law that bans oral testing. Taken with a cotton swab, the oral test checks for antibodies fighting the disease and has been used successfully since 1999. A new “rapid oral test” will be able to detect antibodies within 20 minutes of testing, but will not be offered on Kaua‘i until the equipment becomes available.

Yaris said, “I hope we can change this law to allow our agency to continue to test. So many people come to us before ever going to a doctor, we can be the first step in dealing with the virus.” Yaris explained that it has been proven state-wide that people feel more comfortable and show higher counseling success rates with an organized group like Malama Pono.

While AIDS statistics can only measure reported full-blown AIDS cases because many HIV-positive individuals fail to report their illness, Yaris says “I am looking forward to more accurate statistics,” yet those will come only if people remove the unwarranted stigma towards the disease that can infect anyone, regardless of religion, race or ethnic background.

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