Honoring Life: Arizonans Observe National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Tuesday, March 20, 2012, is National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NNHAAD). Started in 2007, NNHAAD is focused on promoting HIV education, prevention, and testing among Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, a former professor at the University of Arizona who is now director of Indian Health Service, has called NNHAAD a day to “celebrate our successes and plan how to best continue working in partnership to address HIV and AIDS among Native people.”

On March 16, Arizona State University will observe Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day with speakers, information, and free HIV testing.

Although HIV affects every segment of society in the United States, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected, ranking third, after black and Latina/Latino Americans, in the rate of HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Even as high as it is, the documented rate of diagnosis most likely understates the actual rate of HIV among Native Americans and Alaska Natives. This is due to racial misidentification in collected data and poor data reporting between state and federal agencies and the Indian Health Service (IHS). Further deflating the rate of diagnosis is the concern among people from smaller Native communities about anonymity during testing and confidentiality after diagnosis. Those concerns and the stigma associated with HIV lead to a reluctance to get tested, which delays or precludes diagnosis.

To understand the high rate of HIV, it helps to look at risk factors that uniquely affect Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Dr. Anthony Dekker of the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, interviewed for the newspaper Indian Life, commented that Native American patients “have very high rates of … sexually transmitted diseases … We also know that there is a very high rate of alcohol and [substance abuse] in the American Indian/Alaska Native population. There are many reasons for that, but what happens is that when you take a population that has had high rates of substance abuse and high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, [that population] also has high rates of HIV.” A high rate of substance abuse is associated with a high rate of HIV and other STIs, since impairment can lead to risky sexual behavior, such as poorer negotiation of condom use.

The high rate of substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse, has its roots in many traumatic events that have crossed generations among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, including a devastating population loss from an estimated 4.4 to 12.25 million people before European settlement of the Americas to a quarter million by 1900. Numerous government policies, such as mandatory boarding schools from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the Allotment Act of 1887, and the Termination and Relocation Act of 1954, also had deleterious effects on Native communities. As a 2006 article in The Journal of General Psychology explains, the traumas that resulted from these policies “along with causing death … destroyed elements of Native American culture, wrenched people from their ancestral homelands, and forced the socialization and values of the majority culture upon Native people.” Because exposure to traumatic events is strongly associated with alcohol abuse, these traumas introduced high rates of alcoholism in Native communities, which in turn has led to a high rate of HIV and other STIs.

Given this background, National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is an important part of restoring well-being among Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. In coordination with NNHAAD, Arizona State University will be holding an event called Educating Our Future Leaders on March 16, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., at the Arizona State University West Campus at 49th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. The event will take place at the La Sala Ballroom and will include an informational booth, an HIV Jeopardy Game, guest speakers, and free and confidential HIV testing. Further information about the event is available by calling 602-279-5262 ext. 3206 or emailing Trudie Jackson at Trudie.Jackson@asu.edu.

To mark NNHAAD in Tucson, the Tucson Indian Center, in collaboration with the Tohono O’odham HIV/AIDS Program and the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, is sponsoring an event at the Pima Community College West Campus on Saturday, March 24. The event will be at the cafeteria and bookstore lobby, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and will feature Native speakers, performers, music, and HIV testing.  Further information about the event is available by calling 520-884-7131 ext. 334 or emailing Marlene Jose at mjose@ticenter.org.

Information on other events in Arizona, including those offering on-site HIV testing, can be found here.

Planned Parenthood has long been a resource in promoting HIV education, prevention, and testing. Planned Parenthood health centers have staff available to talk about STIs and can help people get the testing or treatment they may need. The Planned Parenthood website also has an online tool called The Check to help people decide if they should get tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV.