Every year, March 20th is designated as National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. As the US Department of Health and Human Services states, the day is “a time to recognize the impact of HIV/AIDS on American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.”
What are HIV and AIDS? HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. Opportunistic infections or cancers take advantage of a very weak immune system and signal that the person has AIDS. For more information, visit HIV.gov.
Natives and HIV/AIDS
From 2010 to 2015, over 1000 American Indian and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) were diagnosed with HIV infection, over 580 were diagnosed with AIDS, and over 300 who had been diagnosed with HIV infection died. Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, there have been over 3500 AIDS diagnoses in AI/AN populations. If these statistics were not alarming enough, the study also shows that after being diagnosed with HIV infection, AI/ANs had the lowest survival rates out of all minority groups.
Unfortunately, the vast cultural diversity amongst tribes, poverty, stigmas related to gay relationships and HIV, mental health care barriers, rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and STDs have all created significant obstacles in addressing HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment in Native communities. But, according to research from the CDC, “Native communities are working to overcome these barriers by increasing HIV/AIDS awareness, encouraging HIV testing, and promoting entry into medical care. CDC is working with communities to share stories, build awareness, and reduce the toll of HIV.”
Elders and HIV/AIDS
Although the focus of the awareness day is on Natives and HIV/AIDS, we also would like to address the Elder population and HIV/AIDS. As the CDC states, people “aged 50 and over account for an estimated 45% of Americans living with diagnosed HIV.” However, they are often an overlooked demographic.
Many Elders are sexually active, but often they are not aware of their risks, or incorrectly assume that they are not at risk. But people 50 and older have the same HIV risk factors as everyone else. Elders also have unique issues that they may face, including:
- Elders who are dating again after becoming widowed or divorced may be less aware of their risks of HIV and may be less likely to protect themselves
- Because getting pregnant may no longer be an issue for Elder women, they may be less likely to practice safe sex
- There is an increased chance of HIV infection in Elder women due to vaginal tissue thinning and dryness
- Elders are less likely to discuss sex or drug use with doctors and get tested, and doctors are less likely to ask or provide testing as well
What You Can Do
The CDC recommends that all adults and adolescents get tested for HIV at least once as a routine part of medical care, while those at increased risk should get an HIV test at least every year. Sexually active gay and bisexual men might benefit from HIV testing every 3 to 6 months.
Some additional actions steps you can take to raise awareness include:
- Talk with your health care provider about your risks for HIV/AIDS
- Talk with family and friends about HIV/AIDS, including prevention and the impact on your community
- Provide support to people living with HIV/AIDS
- Ask community leaders to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic
- Get involved with or host an event
- Visit websites online to provide more information on HIV/AIDS, including HIV.gov, as well as, the CDC website at cdc.gov/features/nativehivaids
For more information about American Indian and Alaska Native Elders, visit www.nicoa.org.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.