March 21 Is Native HIV Awareness Day
Montanans will join the nation Wednesday in recognizing the disproportionate impact on native people of HIV/AIDS. March 21 marks the first annual National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It is intended to increase awareness of the impact of HIV/AIDS on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian populations. The theme of the event is "A Celebration of Life: Protecting Our Future, Protecting Our People!"
"Native communities selected March 21 because it marks the start of spring, a time of renewal," said Laurie Kops, supervisor of the HIV/STD Section at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). "Today is a time for change."
More than a million Americans are living with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, Kops said. At least 40,000 new infections occur every year. American Indians and Alaska Natives represent about 1 percent of the U.S. population but account for the third highest rate of AIDS diagnoses of all races in the nation.
Since 1985, 570 AIDS cases and 226 HIV cases have been reported in Montana, resulting in 288 deaths. Fifty-four of the cases (7 percent) and 22 of the deaths involved American Indians.
"Native people are more likely to live in rural areas, and many rural areas have limited HIV testing services," Kops said. "Stigma about HIV and fear of seeing people they know from their communities at local health-care facilities may also stop people from getting tested. Native people also confront issues like poverty, alcohol, and methamphetamine use, and these impact health and increase infection rates."
In Montana, some tribes provide counseling, testing, and prevention education, and conduct interventions targeting those most at risk for HIV infection, she said.
"Although the number of American Indians in Montana who have been diagnosed with HIV and/or AIDS is relatively small, it's important to remember that stigma, confidentiality issues, and lack of resources or transportation may prevent community members from getting tested," she added.
An estimated 492 people are currently living with HIV/AIDS in Montana, according to Kops. Of this total, 32 are American Indians (23 males and 9 females).
"Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is being commemorated in many Montana native communities to respond to the need for more education, more resources, more testing and less stigma regarding HIV," Kops said. "It's time for all Montanans to protect each other and get tested."