HIV remains a highly stigmatized condition. It is a serious medical condition and people still die of AIDS. Nonetheless, we have highly effective treatments for people living with HIV and better tools than ever before to prevent infection. As uncomfortable as it may be for some people to talk about HIV and AIDS, discussing the basic facts about transmission, testing, and treatment are essential to stopping this epidemic in its tracks. That is why on Sunday, March 20th, we will commemorate the fifth annual National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to educate and encourage American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) to take action to stop the spread of this disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent less than 1 percent of those living with HIV. However, these communities continue to be impacted by HIV. CDC surveillance data show that from 2006 through 2009, the estimated annual rate of HIV diagnosis increased among AI/AN people. In 2009, the estimated rate of HIV diagnosis was 9.8 per 100,000, higher than the rate for white and Asian Americans. Additionally, the CDC estimates that approximately 26% of AI/AN people living with HIV are unaware of their infection. Once diagnosed with AIDS, AI/AN people are less likely to survive compared to HIV-positive individuals in other communities.
Much can be gained through the continued promotion of preventive measures such as routine HIV screenings. Culturally sensitive prevention programs exist across the country, including many services in urban areas with a high Native population such as the Gallup Indian Medical Center, the Alaska Native Medical Center, and the Phoenix Indian Medical Center. These programs are part of a collaborative network sharing resources, ideas, and planning together to implement the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS). The NHAS is the President’s strategy to reduce HIV incidence, increase access to care, and reduce HIV-related health disparities.
This work involves cross-agency cooperation within the Federal government, including the recent CDC investment in a partnership with the Indian Health Service (IHS) to work directly with Tribes to adapt prevention and health promotion programs within AI/AN communities. The partnership compliments existing HIV resources at IHS while expanding our understanding of what works to reduce infections.
Raising awareness of HIV/AIDS throughout Indian Country is essential to reducing the stigma surrounding routine testing and treatment. HIV remains a serious disease, but is preventable. It is important to get the facts about HIV, get tested (the first step in protecting yourself and others from infections) and start an open and honest dialogue about HIV and AIDS in our communities.
Charlie Galbraith is an Associate Director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement