In many Native cultures across the U.S., including American Indians and Alaska Natives, the first day of spring-this year falling on March 20-is a time of healing, equality, and balance. It represents new beginnings and birth, and is a celebration of life for all people. And for the last eight years, the spring equinox has also served as a day to promote National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness. This year's slogan is "Honor Our Ancestors, Protect Our People, and Take the Test!"
American Indians and Alaska Natives, who represent only 1.7% of the total U.S. population, have a disproportionately high annual rate of new HIV infections. In 2011, 75% of Native American men diagnosed with HIV were infected through male-to-male sexual contact; another 11% were infected through injection drug use. Native American women became infected with HIV at nearly three times the rate of white women in 2011, with the majority (63%) contracting the virus through heterosexual sex.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), racial misidentification may lead to undercounting among Native communities in HIV surveillance systems, indicating that the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives living with HIV may be higher than estimated. Yet, despite relatively high rates of infection, 59% of American Indians/Alaska Natives have never been tested for HIV.
"HIV affects our communities, but low HIV testing rates and irregular HIV data collection practices obscure its true impact," said Pamela Jumper-Thurman, a senior research scientist with Colorado State University's CA7AE project, a collaborative partner of National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Incomplete data due to racial misclassification may also contribute to the underfunding of Native-targeted services. Late diagnosis due to limited access to quality healthcare, prevention and treatment education, and testing programs may explain why American Indians and Alaska Natives who receive a diagnosis of HIV infection have shorter survival times than other ethnic/racial groups. On average, only 75% live longer than four years after HIV diagnosis.
National organizations and advocacy groups will host a range of events across the country on March 20 to encourage Native people to learn more about HIV/AIDS and its impact in their community, to expand access to HIV testing and counseling, and to help decrease the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.
National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a federally recognized awareness day funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Partners include Colorado State University's Commitment to Action for 7th-Generation Awareness & Education (CA7AE), www.happ.colostate.edu; National Native American AIDS Prevention Center (NNAAPC), www.nnaapc.org; Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board, www.gptchb.org; and Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. (ITCA), www.itcaonline.com. To find out more, visit www.nnhaad.org.