“Saving face can't make you safe. Talk about HIV – for me, for you, for everyone.”
That’s the motto for National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on May 19.
According to the Banyan Tree Project, which sponsors this Awareness Day on behalf of a wide cross-section of organizations serving Asians and Pacific Islanders:
"Saving face" is a common cultural concept in A&PI communities, where individuals seek to protect the family from perceived public shame or disgrace. In practice, "saving face" contributes to silence about sex, HIV, and safe sex practices. Saving face and stigma also lead to higher rates of HIV infection and a lack of knowledge about one's HIV status.
As an Asian-American physician who has cared for patients with HIV/AIDS, I’ve seen the stigma of HIV firsthand. It’s time to put an end to it.
Last May, I had the honor of blogging about the importance of observing National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I want to reiterate some important points I made then— and also highlight that since then, the White House has released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), a roadmap for reducing the number of new HIV infections, increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV, and reducing HIV-related health disparities.
Current data suggest that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) represent approximately one percent of diagnoses of HIV infection nationally—but the rate of HIV diagnoses among certain AAPI populations is higher than some other groups. In 2009 (the latest year for which we have data), the estimated rate of diagnoses of HIV infection among Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander men per 100,000 population (41.2) was nearly three times that of White men (14.8).
There were relatively few diagnoses of HIV infection among Asian and Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander women in 2009; however, the rates for these groups (3.4 and 13.3, respectively) were higher than the rate for White (2.4) women. The number of AAPIs diagnosed with HIV or AIDS may be larger, since we have reason to believe HIV is underreported among this group.
As part of our commitment to the NHAS, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working to improve our data collection. We want to understand the full impact of HIV/AIDS on all populations, including AAPIs, because better information helps us provide better prevention, testing, and treatment options. Those options will move this country closer to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic—for the AAPI community and everyone else too.
On June 5, we will mark 30 years since the first published reports of AIDS. One of the best ways we can commemorate that date is to talk about HIV within our families, among our friends, and in our communities. We can reaffirm our commitment to ending the suffering through HIV awareness, testing, treatment, and care.
I encourage you to visit the Banyan Tree Project’s website to find information about events, posters, and other resources in your community for National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. “Saving face” can’t make us safe—but awareness and action can. Please join us!
To find an HIV testing site or other HIV services near you, visit http://locator.AIDS.gov to access the HIV Prevention and Services Provider Locator. By entering your address or ZIP code, you can find HIV testing, mental health, substance abuse, housing, health care, and family planning resources near you.
Howard K. Koh M.D., M.P.H., is Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services