Asian-Pacific Islander HIV Awareness Day

By jschneidewind on May 19, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy, Uncategorized

By Julia Cheng, Zamora Fellow, AIDS United

Two AIDS Awareness Days in a week?  Yes!   Yesterday was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day and today is Asian-American and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS (API HIV) Awareness Day.  Since we’ve already covered the importance of finding an HIV vaccine, I’d like to speak on API HIV Awareness Day.

I know that AIDS Awareness Days can feel somewhat perfunctory to some.  However, the importance of AIDS Awareness Days is in highlighting specific populations and issues.  Awareness days  remind us that AIDS isn’t an equitable disease, that all forms of discrimination precede negative health outcomes.  I have also heard it said often the HIV is a series of epidemics in the United States.  The point being: different communities, whether distinct by region or other social markers, face different barriers and challenges.

Why a day focused on APIs?  While currently APIs have low rates of HIV prevalence relative to other groups, APIs face increasing HIV infection rates along with consistently low testing rates according to the CDC’s latest data.  The API community is extraordinarily diverse, so just as we need to treat HIV in the U.S. as a series of epidemics, such is true within the API community as well.  At the same time, there is a vital conversation about Pan Asian-American needs, which is why, as much as I am loathe to speak about needs of a dynamic group, I am writing this blog piece.

Here is a brief description of just some of the key issues and barriers that I think face the API community in regards to HIV.

Sexuality: Though this is often discussed in our community, I feel as if many conversations about sexuality remain focused around politics and stereotypes.  More forthright conversation about sexual needs and health is needed but without forgetting the position of those who may not be able to open up about their needs.

LGBT: Issues of gender and sexual orientation may clash with perceived cultural values.  As in many places, sexual orientation continues to be perceived as a Western innovation despite a varied history of sexual orientation, sexual practice, and gender identification within Asian cultures.  Homophobia and transphobia are dangerous to the health of communities and individuals.

Mental Health: Asian American’s have low indicators of mental health and are unlikely to seek help for mental health problems.   Though there remains little research about Asian-American mental health, studies have suggested higher levels of depressive symptoms and API women ages 15 to 24 lead in the highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups in the nation according to the Department of Health and Human Services.  According to the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, forty percent of Southeast Asian refugees suffer from depression. For a population already under stress, stigmas around sex, being gay, being positive, can only exacerbate poor mental health and put individuals at greater risk for HIV.  Furthermore, poor indicators of mental health may also correlate with drug use that puts individuals at risk through the use of non-sterile syringes.

Culture and Language: Similar to other racial and social minorities, mistrust of the establishment and lack of cultural competency and language are barriers to positive health outcomes.  Asian-Americans face issues similar to other migrant communities.  While cultural specific attitudes depend on the individual; the ideas of “saving face” and not “making waves” are prominent among API communities.  In addition, conflicts of traditional versus modern medicine can present an unhealthy dichotomy of choices.

Unity: The API community should celebrate and recognize our diversity and understand it is in our own common interests to advocate and understand the wide range of needs within our community.  We also have unified needs, of which preventing and treating HIV are vital.

Lastly, own the issue.

It’s interesting to me that despite a rich and burgeoning field of scholars on Asian-American sexuality that the API community seems to lack ownership of HIV issues.  This morning I did a brief peruse of blogs that focus on (non-HIV specific) Asian-American issues and didn’t find much of anything on HIV Awareness Day.  This includes blogs that often dissect and examine Asian-American sexuality (which I feel is most, as the history and current perception of Asian-Americans is uniquely shaped by sex and gender).  While the Banyan Tree Project, the lead organization behind API HIV Awareness Day, is doing a great job to raise consciousness, it seems to me that a great challenge is taking that message and owning the issue, as evidenced by the low rates of testing among the APIs.  So while there are many key issues and barriers that face the API community you might feel like can’t take on yourself, you can own the issue.  Consider your risk for HIV, get tested, and encourage others to do the same.

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