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HIV resurgent among Navajo tribe as deadly cases spike

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 20th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

As the number of HIV cases spikes among Navajo people, doctors are becoming increasingly worried that the virus is reemerging after years of success in beating back the disease in the United States. Cultural taboos and the closeness of Navajo society may be to blame.

GALLUP, NM (Catholic Online) - Infections of HIV are up about 20 percent in 2012 with 47 new cases diagnosed on the reservation near Gallup New Mexico. A new report from the Indian Health Services shared the alarming statistics which represent the single largest number of annual infections reported by the agency.

Dr. Jonathan Iralu, an infectious disease specialist, told the New York Times, "I'm scared to death. The numbers show there is a dangerous rise, and the time to act is now, before it's too late."

Dr. Iralu compiled the report and spoke to the publication about his early experiences with the disease in the late 1980s. Iralu reflected on how men would enter the hospital "with a fever or a cough, and a few days later they would be dead," the story explained.

Over the past decade, advancements have been made in HIV/AIDS awareness and in treatments that can stall the progress of the disease, thus prolonging the life of patients by years to decades.

However, in 2012, the disease appears to have come back with a  vengeance. There are now About 200 Navajo patients being reported by clinics. The actual rates of infection may be much higher.

Cultural barriers prevent people from speaking to family and friends about their illness and even elders of the tribe refuse to speak about it, let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy that the tribe will suffer from the disease.

Yet, the disease is present and spreading.

The majority of the clients Dr. Iralu sees are men engaged in homosexual activity. They still keep their relationships private and rarely speak to others. These men seek treatment, but do not discuss their behavior or illness with others, making it difficult to stop the spread of the disease.

It's easy to understand why. One Navajo man told Dr. Iralu that when he told his mother he had HIV, she refused to speak to him and served his food on disposable plastic plates.

The man, now 48, has been accepted by his mother only because he explained how the disease is transmitted and that it cannot be transmitted via plates and utensils. This would suggest the power of communication as a solution, however the unidentified man also told the doctor that he would not discuss his illness with his brothers because they might shun him.

Reservation life is very close-knit and everyone on the reservation knows one another. Privacy is difficult to come by. This leads to stigmatization and an avoidance of treatment and other behaviors that could save lives because people would rather suffer quietly than be embarrassed before their family and friends.

The issue is significant for the Navajo and for all Native Americans. Native Americans have a lower survival rate than any other group. This is a direct result of delayed testing and diagnosis. Early detection of HIV is critical to prolonging a victim's life.

The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse as well as diabetes also exacerbates the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the reservation, leading to earlier deaths.

Dr. Iralu told the New York Times that he's afraid of what will happen if the people do not become more open about discussing HIV and getting tested. "I'm afraid that if we wait too long it could turn into a true epidemic," he said.

For people who have already withstood depredations of epidemic disease and racial abuse, it's even more tragic to see cultural taboos exacerbating a problem that could otherwise be effectively addressed.

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