Unity is CommUnity: Promoting HIV Awareness in Native Communities

Today is National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NNHAAD), a day dedicated to promoting awareness of the impact that HIV/AIDS has on Native communities, particularly American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Today, March 20 marks the first day of spring. In many cultures, the spring season is a time of equality, balance, and new beginnings. This year, the first day of spring also marks the 11th year of National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NNHAAD), a day dedicated to promoting awareness of the impact that HIV/AIDS has on Native communities, particularly American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, in the United States.

Sponsored by a number of partners dedicated to assisting Native organizations, tribes, and state health departments, NNHAAD, is a “national community mobilization effort” dedicated to encouraging American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians throughout the country to get educated on HIV and go for testing. Furthermore, NNHAAD encourages those who are HIV-positive to receive the proper care and treatment needed.

NNHAAD works to show those who are living with HIV that they are not alone and community efforts are needed to improve preventive strategies and promote adherence to treatment. This year, the theme of the Day is “Unity is CommUnity-Stand Strong to Prevent HIV!”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, there were 39,513 new HIV diagnoses; 209 of these were among American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIs/ANs). Of the 209 diagnoses, the majority (or 73%) were men; 26% were women. Of the 152 diagnoses that occurred in men, 120 were among gay and bisexual men. A notable finding is that from 2005 to 2014, the number of these new diagnoses has, overall, increased by 19% in AI/AN. The number of diagnoses among AI/AN gay and bisexual also increased during this time period by 63%.

When it comes to the impact that HIV has on these populations compared with other ethnic groups, the official NNHAAD website reports that Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders (NHOPIs) and AIs/Ans “have the 3rd and 4th highest rate of new HIV infections, respectively.” The website also notes that the rate in 2008 was “22.85 per 100,000 persons for NHOPIs and 11.9 per 100,000 for AI/ANs, compared to 73.7 for Black/African Americans, 25.0 for Hispanic/Latinos, 8.2 for Whites, and 7.2 for Asian.”

Because of the growing concern regarding the “disproportionate impact” that HIV has on racial and ethnic minorities within the United States, Congress established the Minority AIDS Initiative back in 1999. The HHS Secretary’s Minority AIDS Initiative Fund (SMAIF) contributes $50 million annually to support many efforts “designed to reduce new HIV infections, improve HIV-related health outcomes, and reduce HIV-related health disparities in racial and ethnic minority communities.”

Although additional efforts continue to be made, HIV prevention can be particularly challenging among AI/AN tribes because of cultural diversity, according to the CDC. Furthermore, “poverty, stigma associated with gay relationships and HIV, barriers to mental health care, and high rates of alcohol and drug abuse and STDs all increase the risk of HIV in Native communities and create obstacles to HIV prevention and treatment.”

By promoting HIV awareness, testing, and the act of seeking medical care, Native communities are working towards overcoming these challenges. With help from the CDC, these communities are determined to cut back on the increasing number of new infections.

The CDC recommends that all adolescents and adults go for HIV testing “at least once as a routine part of medical care.” Those who are particularly at risk of infection should go for testing at least once a year. Furthermore, the CDC suggests that it might be particularly beneficial for sexually active gay and bisexual men, who are arguably at greatest risk of infection, to go for testing every 3-6 months.

The CDC provides the public with ways to be proactive when it comes to HIV. Individuals can find a testing site near them and “GetTested,” just by plugging in their zip code, city or state. Another way individuals can find testing locations is through the Indian Health Service, or by visiting a IHS Tribal or Urban facility near them. The CDC also provides materials that can be used to prompt discussion and promote further education on how HIV impacts native populations.

Through awareness days such as NNHAADS, individuals from across the country can come together with the same goal: to stop HIV. Together, by spreading education on HIV prevention, testing, and treatment, we may be able to reduce the number of new diagnoses, and ultimately, save lives.