May 19, 2011
May 19, 2011 marks the 7th annual National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a federally endorsed observance highlighting the alarming rise in new HIV infections among Asians and Pacific Islanders (A&PIs), an often overlooked population in mainstream HIV prevention efforts. On this day, the Banyan Tree Project -- a national partnership to reduce the silence and shame around HIV in A&PI communities -- calls on community leaders, health providers and policymakers to address the lack of HIV prevention information targeting A&PIs, and A&PI women in particular.
The Banyan Tree Project: Rooted in Acceptance
Recent analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that A&PIs have the highest rate of increase in new HIV infections in the nation, the only statistically significant growth among any racial or ethnic group, and yet two-thirds of A&PIs have never been tested for HIV.1 While the disease is still seen as a men's issue, the epidemic is growing at alarming rates among A&PI women. Still, the misconception that A&PIs are not at risk for HIV persists -- even among healthcare providers who discourage A&PI women from getting tested. In fact, a recent study by Dr. Hyeouk Chris Hahm from Boston University indicates that A&PI women are less likely than other ethnic groups to be offered an HIV test in OB/GYN settings.2
A number of factors contribute to the HIV risk for A&PI women, including a lack of targeted HIV prevention information for women, unequal power dynamics in sexual relationships, biological differences and the fact that a woman's HIV risk is often indirect. A woman's HIV risk is her partner's HIV risk and many women in monogamous relationships are shocked when they test positive. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of A&PI women living with HIV got it through heterosexual sex (86 percent).3
If you're A&PI and living with HIV -- especially if you're an A&PI woman living with HIV -- this information probably resonates with your own experiences. The fact that A&PIs aren't prioritized as a population in the HIV epidemic is not just an abstract injustice, but a hard fact that affects the community every day. Jaimie Kahale-Callahan, an HIV educator from Hawai'i who has been living with HIV for 20 years, shared her story at a recent press conference hosted by the Banyan Tree Project. After she gave birth to her son, she was hospitalized with oral thrush, unexplained rashes, recurring vaginal yeast infections and a host of other health issues -- all markers of acute HIV infection. Still, the doctors were baffled. "They tested me for every viral infection except HIV," she says. "I just didn't fit the HIV profile." A year later, her husband was diagnosed with AIDS and only then did she find out she was HIV-positive. 20 years since Jaimie's diagnosis, A&PI women are still being discouraged from getting HIV tests, and women are still testing positive.
According to Dr. Hahm, we need to do more than just increase HIV awareness and testing options to address the epidemic in A&PI communities. If we don't fight HIV stigma, we will remain weak and disconnected as a community. We need to reduce the stigma, shame and silence that prevent so many people from protecting themselves, getting tested, seeking treatment services or disclosing their status to friends and family.
Do you have a story to share about HIV stigma? Were you ever discouraged from getting tested for HIV? If so, please comment on this post so we can start a dialogue in our community.
Remember, saving face can't make you safe. Talk about HIV -- for me, for you, for everyone.
View the Banyan Tree Project's 2011 National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day PSA below:
Stephanie Goss is the Communications Manager at Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center.
Funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Banyan Tree Project is a national partnership that seeks to engage people across the U.S. and Pacific Island Jurisdictions from all walks of life to reduce the shame and discrimination around HIV/AIDS in A&PI communities. Partners include Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center (project lead), Hawai'i Multicultural HIV/AIDS Resource Project of Life Foundation (Honolulu), Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (Los Angeles) and Massachusetts Asian & Pacific Islanders for Health (Boston). For more information please visit www.banyantreeproject.org.