Navajos Confront Syphilis Outbreak With Rare Public Education Campaign
June 18, 2003
An STD that was once thought to be all but stamped out by the late 1980s has reemerged among the Navajo nation. In February, Dr. Jonathan Iralu called on the chief executive of the government-run Gallup Indian Medical Center to set in motion an STD public awareness campaign to educate the roughly 200,000 Navajos on the vast reservation, which reaches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.Adapted from:
The number of reported syphilis cases went from two in 1999 to nine in 2000, 34 in 2001 and 34 last year. The 2002 rate of 14.7 cases per 100,000 people was nearly seven times the national rate of 2.2 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Indian Health Service.
In a full-page ad in the Navajo Times newspaper in March, Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. was pictured next to a message encouraging fellow tribal members to practice safe sex and get tested. In addition, a multi-agency task force to oversee STD treatment and prevention is in the planning stage. Condom-filled safe sex kits are now offered every Thursday at the Class Act nightclub in Gallup, N.M., on the reservation's edge.
The public health agencies running the campaign have faced several cultural obstacles. Among them:
"With an issue like this, cultural ramifications should not even be a factor, because you're going to be putting lives at stake," Shirley said. The tribe is seeking out elder members and medicine men to develop ways to talk about disease that will help health workers in the field. In the meantime, workers are using Navajo phrases that translate as "a sore on the penis or vagina" or "a body rash" to describe syphilis.
The STD program also includes a renewed campaign against AIDS on the reservation. In the past couple of years, the Navajos have seen alarming evidence that HIV is no longer solely imported from border towns; it is being spread locally. According to IHS statistics, since 1987, 151 people have been treated by the Navajo-area IHS for HIV infection.
06.18.03; Leslie Hoffman