The history of AIDS is long and tumultuous. It began a century of year ago somewhere near modern-day Kinshasa in West Central Africa: circa 1900, a chimpanzee bit a hunter. Though it may have seemed unimportant at the time, some of the animal’s blood entered the human’s body. This blood carried a virus harmless to chimpanzees but lethal to humans. This virus spread through colonial cities, but was not identified until much later.
Our lack of awareness on the virus continued until June 1981, when the CDC published a report regarding five young gay men with fatal or life-threatening PCP pneumonia. In people with intact immune systems, to be so severely affected by a common lung disease was rare. Around the same time, the CDC also reported an unusual skin cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma or “K,” killing young, previously healthy men in New York City and California. While people originally thought that the disease only affected homosexual men, this theory was soon disproved. Scientists noticed that AIDS affects people with hemophilia, causing excessive bleeding, and this observation convinced them that the disease spreads by an infection in contaminated blood. Eventually, the CDC named the new disease “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS.
A pervasive fear of AIDS continued to be a pressing issue in the 1980s and onward. In 1984, scientists discovered that the cause of AIDS was a virus detected in the lymph nodes, which caused swelling and bumps. They named the virus HIV or “Human Immunodeficiency Virus.” Though knowledge grew about AIDS and HIV, by the end of 1984 there had already been 7,699 AIDS cases and 3,665 AIDS deaths in the United States alone.
Awareness Among Natives
Alaskan Natives and American Indians represent approximately 1.2% of the U.S. population; the numbers of diagnosed HIV patients are generally proportional to population sizes; but other factors pose problems for Native Americans and their fight against the disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the end of 2013, 18% of natives were diagnosed with HIV in comparison to 13% of the broader, general population. Furthermore, almost 20% of natives were unaware that they had HIV. HIV aside, data shows that from 2011 to 2015, among all racial groups, natives had the second highest rates of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, which among other STD’s increase people’s risk for getting or transmitting HIV. The rates for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) are also increasing. Between 2005 and 2015, annual HIV diagnoses declined 5%, while among NHOPI gay and bisexual men, it increased by 27%.
Cultural differences impact HIV cases and prevention among natives. A majority of HIV cases surrounded gay or bisexual men, and the stigma of homosexuality and having STD’s as well as confidentiality concerns in these communities could limit education and HIV testing opportunities. With 560 federally recognized tribes and over 170 languages, the vast diversity among these communities creates challenges in making culturally appropriate prevention programs. Alcohol and illicit drug use can lead to behaviors that increase the risk of HIV, and compared with other ethnic groups, natives tend to use alcohol and drugs at a younger age and at higher quantities. To top of previously mentioned obstacles, racial misidentification may lead to undercounting of HIV cases among natives and, subsequently, to underfunding of targeted HIV services for natives.
Among Native Americans, increased rates of poverty, higher unemployment rates, limited access to good housing and education, and lower rates of health insurance coverage all increase their risks for HIV infection. NHOPI population shares all of these issues, too. Now, the CDC is working to help Native Americans with HIV prevention and treatment through partnerships with the Indian Health Service (IHS) and tribal leaders of the CDC Tribal Consultation Advisory Committee to raise awareness through several programs including the Act Against AIDS campaigns.