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Deadly Secrets: Massachusetts Hub Group Helps African Immigrants With HIV-AIDS Overcome Bias, Fear

May 17, 2002

Rosette Serwanga knew that more had to be done. A 40-year-old Zambian immigrant and mother of three had died in Lowell. A 44-year-old Ugandan woman died at home in Waltham. Most troubling, a 38-year-old woman had died in Belgium, in transit from Waltham to Uganda.

Each had died of an AIDS-related complication. The stigma of the disease had kept two of the women from seeking health care and the third victim had been sent home to die, lest word of her infection spread through the local African-immigrant community.

Serwanga, project manager for the African Health Initiative (AHI), a 2-year-old education and advocacy program of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition (MAC), has worked in AIDS education for more than a decade. She helped MAC, the largest minority-based AIDS organization in the city, to produce "In Our House," a new half-hour video that targets the growing population of sub-Saharan Africans.

No one knows exactly how many immigrants in metro Boston hail from sub-Saharan Africa. Serwanga estimates as many as 100,000 Africans in Mass., with the largest populations from Cape Verde, Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda. The prevalence rate for AIDS within this population is unknown, but MAC believes it overshadows the Commonwealth's overall infection rate for blacks (1.2 percent). Sub-Saharan Africans now account for 3 percent of Massachusetts' AIDS cases among immigrant groups. "People are very reluctant to get tested and come into care," said Jean McGuire, director of the HIV-AIDS Bureau of the Mass. Department of Public Health. Many African immigrants worry that a positive HIV test would invite government retribution, including deportation.

The cultural diversity of sub-Saharan Africa -- the region encompasses more than 50 countries, each with an array of distinct tribal groups -- and the immigrants' dispersal throughout the Boston region can hinder outreach efforts by health workers. That's where they hope "In Our House" can help. "In Our House" is the story of an HIV-positive widower grappling with the decision to tell his bisexual son and pregnant daughter of his infection and to seek professional assistance.

"We wanted to show people you can actually go through the whole process and find a light," said Rodriguez, MAC spokesperson and initiator of the video. Rodriguez also hopes service providers become aware of the cultural nuances within the new immigrant population.

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Excerpted from:
Boston Herald
04.30.02; Christopher Cox

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